Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: "Jerusalem Imperilled" by Harry Freedman

by Harry Freedman

“Jerusalem Imperilled” takes you back to Jerusalem circa 67 A.D., in Roman-occupied Judea. As stated in the book’s description, the story is told by Levi, a young man sold into slavery shortly after his wedding day. He ends up in Rome, penning his story as he hears it from slaves and others who come ashore at the dock he oversees.

I’ve not been a big fan of historical fiction but I decided recently I need to broaden my interests. I’m glad I did; Jerusalem Imperilled is a fascinating and engaging read. And it’s cleverly written. As a writer, I’m impressed with Freedman’s work.

I tend to favor books with a lot of action and Jerusalem Imperilled is loaded with action: a successful assault on the impenetrable Masada; hand-to-hand combat on the streets of Jerusalem; a daring broad daylight rescue of a boy cruelly condemned to lose his only good eye; a siege; and middle-of-the-night conspiratorial meetings.

I don’t like holes in a plot big enough to drive a truck through; things have to make sense. I would suppose with historical fiction an author must be given some creative license, especially when the book is set in a time with little reliable historical records. The plot of Jerusalem Imperilled is solid. Having studied the Old and New Testaments, a knew a little about Jewish life from that time and everything jived with my study.

Whether or not a book is good depends on its ability to hold the reader’s interest and attention. I stopped reading at least ten books in 2011 because they were either poorly written, horribly edited, or just plain boring. I looked forward to picking up my iPad when reading Jerusalem Imperilled. As a writer, there is no higher compliment. It’s a nice long satisfying read.

I highly recommend Jerusalem Imperilled.

P.S.  I, too, thought "imperilled" was incorrectly spelled. Gasp! In the title! My app said the British spell it with two "L's". Those Brits.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Can You Use Humor in Thrilling Fiction?

Bonds Flat Road was so congested Grant and Bensen decided to find a landline instead of slogging through traffic, watching for bars to appear on their cell phones.

The parking lot next to the park office building was full, so Grant parked in the back. Walking through the lot, Bensen said, “Lots of fed-looking cars here. You think Homeland Security and the FBI are here?”

“Wouldn’t bet against it. This is a big deal now, maybe the biggest thing to ever happened around here. I bet the governor does a flyover.”

A dozen photographers elbowed each other on the observation decks, jostling for the best perspective, snapping away with big cameras. The sun was up and it was hot, yet they wore long sleeved windbreakers advertising the agencies they represented.

“Yup,” Bensen said, looking at the observation decks. “Homeland Security’s here. And the FBI, the CBI, and someone from four or five counties. And I think I see a security guard from Walmart.”

Two big feds were guarding the door, arms folded across their chests. “Can we help you?” a black guy with a knobby bald head said.

“I need to use a landline,” Grant said, pulling out his ID. “There’s no cell coverage out here and I need to call my chief.”

The guy peered at Grant’s shield for half a second while shaking his head, and said, “Sorry, Homeland Security’s using this building.”

“How about a cordless, then?” Bensen asked. “We’ll stay out here and talk. You can eavesdrop.”

The guy scowled and tightened his arms across his chest. The other guy, who looked like a movie mobster, smirked.

Grant got an idea. “Hey, is Barbara Johansen in there?”

“Yeah. She’s area supervisor. So what?”

“Tell her Detective Grant Starr is here and I need to talk to her.”

He scowled at Grant again, disappeared into the building for five minutes, poked his head back out, glared at Grant and Bensen and said, “You can come in.”

Grant walked in and Bensen followed. When Bensen passed the guy, he slipped him a folded dollar bill and said, “Keep an eye on the blue Ford, will ’ya?” He winked at the man. “There’ll be more of these if it doesn’t get dinged or scratched.”

The guy threw the bill on the floor and said, “Smartass.”

Five steps later, Grant said to Bensen, “You’re paying the deductible if my truck gets keyed.”

“Don’t worry,” Bensen said. “Guys like that are really pussycats.”

Eco-terrorism is no laughing matter, especially when hundreds of innocent people get killed because one man thinks things fish are more important than people.

In this scene, Detectives Grant Starr and Ralph Bensen have just witnessed what would likely happen (at least in my imagination) to the Don Pedro Reservoir if the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy failed. Flood water tops the dam, the worst thing that can happen to an earth-and-rock-fill dam, but...

No spoilers here! Check out my THE MIGHTY T page for another excerpt, reviews, and purchase information.

It’s a tense scene, yet Bensen is cracking jokes. (He probably should think twice about agitating the angry fed at the door, though. They might need to pass through that door again before the story is over.) I like Bensen, he’s a little like me in some ways; I’m always trying to lighten a heavy situation with humor. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not so well. Eyes often roll after I’ve opened my mouth.

Some readers may not like the wise-cracking Bensen, may think he should be more policeman-like, especially in a dire situation like this one. They’d likely be the ones who roll their eyes at me after I’ve said something witty, or pithy, while trying to lighten the mood.

I’ve read novels that had almost no humor in them. I have to say I don’t enjoy them as much. Humor isn’t always appropriate, but I think it is more often than not.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee, A Writer's Life For Me

Remember this song from Pinocchio?

A writer’s life for me
A high silk hat and a silver cane
A watch of gold with a diamond chain

A writer’s life is gay
It’s great to be a celebrity
A writer’s life for me

A writer’s life is fun

A writer’s life for me
A wax mustache and a beaver coat
A pony cart and a billy goat

A writer’s life is fun
You wear your hair in a pompadour
You ride around in a coach and four
You stop and buy out a candy store
A writer’s life for me!

(Lyrics: Ned Washington, except for my changes)

Not exactly as you remember? Can you spot my changes? Pinocchio had been convinced he would be an actor, not a writer. But hey, at one time I thought that’s what a writer’s life would be. Sort of.

There’ve been no coaches for me, I don’t have a beaver coat, and my hair will never be in a pompadour, so here’s my updated version of what I’d like my writer’s life to be:

I get up early to write. Early is good because the house is quiet and there are no distractions. I’m not tempted by the Internet or Twitter or Facebook that early, for some odd reason. I’m ready to write. After I get my brain to wake up, of course.

I write until my brain has had enough or the muse has left the building. Or both, which is usually the case. That might happen in two hours or it might happen in four. Rarely more than four. I write in my office, which has a lock on the door to prevent others from wandering in to give me a kiss or ask me if I need anything or to tell me they’re going to the store.

I write every day. EVERY DAY. Even Christmas--at least a page--and even on my birthday. Even when my wife and I go away for the weekend. If I’m writing, I’m writing. I can take a break from editing or formatting, but not writing. The muse is fickle and does not like to be ignored. Ignore the muse and she might leave me alone for days or weeks, and that would be bad.

Once I’ve written, the rest of the day is mine. I’ll exercise, spend time with family, cook, read, and maybe even relax in front of the TV with my wife. Maybe do some writing-business like talk to my agent or publisher.

That’s about it for my dream writer’s-life, when I’m creating. If I’m editing, I can do that anywhere there’s a desk. Changes are made on paper then input into the computer later. Easy.

In reality, as I’m not yet supporting my family with my writing and I have a day job, I write at odd times and in odd places. We don’t have a spare room in our condo so I have to leave the house to find the solitude I need.

I can write almost anywhere family or friends are not, because they feel like they’ve got to talk to me even though they see I’m busy writing: the library, a coffee shop, a cafĂ©, the break area of a grocery store ... Almost anywhere.

When writing in public, I have my noise-canceling headphones--I don’t care if people think I’m being rude wearing them in public--and I write with the either the OmmWriter or iA Writer apps on my iPad. OmmWriter is nice for times I’m writing in noisy environments because it comes with it’s own soundtrack. Writer is simpler to use and links with Dropbox for easy access to my files.

My time is restricted now; I don’t have four consecutive hours for writing every day. I have to take what I can get, when I can get it. It’s almost impossible for me to write in the evening; my brain seems to be unable to focus on writing then. I suppose I could train it to, but I like to spend that time with my wife.

And of course, there is currently no agent or publisher to talk business with; I’m self-published. They may change, or it may not.

If you write, what is your ideal writing day or schedule? What compromises do you have to make now because of family commitments or a day job?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Taco-Truck Tacos and Accuracy

Earlier, near the ranch home of Gus Carlisle, Eric Donaldson and Isaac Roberts pulled into an almond orchard. They shut off the 1968 VW Bug, grabbed their plates of taco-truck tacos and gobbled the food, taking care that nothing fell on the floor or seats.

“What time is it?” Roberts asked.

“Nine-thirty,” Donaldson said. He wadded up his paper plate and foil and threw them into the orchard.

“Better go get that,” Roberts said. “John said not to get sloppy. The cops could get your DNA off that.”

“John can kiss my ass. My DNA’s not in the system and this will be over in a few days anyway. I’ll be sitting on a beach in Fiji, where they don’t extradite.”

Roberts thought about that, threw his garbage out his window and said, “John can kiss my ass, too.” He had no idea if his DNA was in the system.

They checked their 9mm Browning Hi-Power Mark IIIs, removing and reinserting the magazines. While suppressors weren’t necessary in the country, they’d brought them anyway; there was money to burn and using them made the men feel like James Bond.

“Let’s go,” Donaldson said. “I’m sick of sittin’ in this shitty little car.”

They got out and walked through the orchard to Carlisle’s house. While doing surveillance, they saw Carlisle enter the house only through the front door, never the side door, which is closer to the detached garage. They would cover both doors to be sure.

Roberts took up his position in the back yard while Donaldson went to the front. They swatted at mosquitoes and waited.

When I first wrote this scene, I had Roberts and Donaldson grabbing their bags of taco-truck tacos. My wife read the draft and said “Taco trucks sell plates of tacos, not bags.”

I wouldn’t know that because I don’t dine at taco trucks. Growing up, we always called them “gut trucks” or “roach coaches.” I don’t know if they have to be licensed and inspected by the health department; if they don’t, I don’t wanna eat their food.

My wife eats their food, though, and she feeds it to the kids. So far they’ve survived. I chalk it up to their iron stomachs that undoubtedly produce copious amounts of strong hydrochloric acid.

Apparently taco-truck tacos have become so popular that local sit-down Mexican restaurants have put them on their menus. I ordered them once (at a sit-down restaurant, one clearly displaying the date of their latest successful health department inspection). They weren’t bad, but they weren’t anything special either. Meh.

My wife will eat taco-truck tacos but she won’t eat sushi. Go figure. Aren’t they about the same?

I had to change the text in my novel because I’m a stickler for accuracy. But really, who would have caught that? Would I have gotten angry fan mail that said “Hey Powers, taco-truck tacos are served on plates you moron! Get your facts straight!”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Using (Poor) Grammar to Help Dictate Pace

In my last post here, I introduced Fred Reese and Jim Waterman, two oldtimers from my novel CANALS. In that post, we learn Fred is upset at how the country seems to be awash with rude people.

Here's another excerpt from CANALS, also featuring Jim and Fred. I've ignored some rules of good sentence structure in the final paragraph to change the pace of the narration, to let the reader known something might be about to happen:

“All volunteer personnel are to move fifty feet away from the canals immediately,” the radio clipped to Fred Reese’s belt said.

Fred had another cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and he held a fishing rod in his right hand, at least in his mind’s eye. He didn’t ordinarily smoke so much, but because he knew it really bothered Jim, he kept one going. He mostly just let them burn down; no need to inhale to get Jim’s goat.

He knew he’d have to remove the earplugs sooner or later, but right now later sounded better than sooner. He cast out with his imaginary rod.

Jim heard the radio crackle but was too far away to make out the words and too stubborn to cross the street to find out. “He’s wearing the damn thing, let him answer it.”

The light flickered again: Jim walked back to the battery, kicked it, walked back to the railing and heard the radio again, turned his head to yell at Fred and walked into the thin stand holding the light, knocking it over the railing. He reaches and catches the stand but a bolt pops off and the light falls and is dangling two feet above the water, held only by the wire attaching it to the battery. He grabs for the wire, hears glass breaking followed by a brief blinding flash, then everything is black but the yellow-orange circle of light in the center of his vision where the bursting bulb has seared his retinas. He swears and gropes for the wire.

Jim Waterman’s vision had just returned when he found the wire. He hesitated and considered letting the damn thing go. What, would they dock his pay?

Just then he felt something sharp prick his hand. He quickly jerked the hand up, looked and blinked, squeezing his eyes shut before reopening them: his hand wasn’t cut, it wasn’t there. Blood squirted from his wrist and arced into the canal.

He leaned over the railing to look for his hand; it would need to be reattached at the hospital.

Three black heads came out of the canal, their mouths agape, showing silver blades that glinted in the ambient light. One bit down over his head but did not decapitate him, the other two latched onto his shoulders: Jim Waterman was pulled him into the water before he could make a sound.

It doesn't end well for Jim. Oh well, that's what you get for having a minor part in a horror novel.

But back to the pacing. An editor or my high school English teacher would love to attack the last paragraph of the first excerpt. They'd add commas and break sentences up and get rid of most of the "and"s and ... Well, they'd muck with my pacing.

I think a fiction writer can ignore some of the basics of grammar to dictate pace, or even mood. In fiction what matters is, what effect does the writing have on the reader and are you entertaining or enlightening them? I don't seek to enlighten, I seek to entertain. I think I do that well.

Don't overdo it, though. If used too much it can tire the reader and/or lose its effectiveness.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Country Is Awash With Rude People

“What’d they say?” Jim asked Fred, yelling across the street through cupped hands. Their road was busy and a steady stream of cars whizzed by.

“They said turn the lights on and leave them on all night,” Fred called back.

“See, I told you they thought we were a bunch of stooges! They think we’re so stupid we have to be told to turn the lights on.”

Their lights had been on for ten minutes and their canals were well lit. Fred stood and looked over the railing into the water. At first he’d been intrigued by their assignment, thinking they might be doing something important, but so far they were batting five hundred; four pairs of jogger/walkers had heeded their warning, but four others had not, and they had been rude. He was used to kids being rude, but adults? Couldn’t they see the city was serious about this?

His mind wandered and he thought about the state of society in general. People were rude now. No one used turn signals anymore, they just drifted into your lane when they felt like it. No one held doors for others and men didn’t give up their seats to women. When he was young, that was automatic. He blamed women’s lib. And the cell phones: he couldn’t have a meal in a restaurant or watch a movie without two or three of them going off. Worst thing was, the idiots took the calls, yapping at their table as if everyone wanted to hear the details of their pathetic lives, or, if they were at the movies, they would rush out of the theater whispering, as if they were neurosurgeons being summoned to perform emergency brain surgery.

The country was awash with rude people.

Fred worked himself into a funk and thought about packing up and going home, or anywhere he wouldn’t have to listen to Jim Waterman complain. Or put up with rude people.

Instead, he lit a cigarette. People of his generation saw a thing through to the end. If a guy said he was going to do something, he put in his time and finished. He didn’t leave the ballgame in the eighth inning to beat the traffic, he waited until the last pitch was thrown.

He puffed and heard Jim yell, “I can smell your stinky stick all the way over here, Reese!”

Fred wished he had brought earplugs, then remembered he had. Gladys made him tote one of those ridiculous kits around wherever he went: Band-Aids and tweezers and gauze and disinfectant and a little tin of Tylenol and ... yes! Ear plugs.

He popped them in his ears when he was sure Jim wasn’t looking.

He smiled and puffed. Let the fool talk all he wanted.

This is a scene from my horror novel, CANALS. Fred Reese and Jim Waterman are two senior police volunteers, part of the "geezer squad" called on by Captain Bozeman to keep people away from the canals, where a nasty monster was biting and eating people. As you read, they were batting five hundred, which, for you non-sports people, means they only succeeded fifty percent of the time.

Fred has a lot of time to think, and because of his unpleasant partner, Jim, his mind drifts to the sad state of things in the country.

I admit there's some of me in this scene. I'm not a geezer (except to my teenage daughters) and I don't smoke, but I loathe rude cell phone users, which is almost every cell phone user, and I hold disdain for bad drivers. Quite frequently, the two are the same.

Adding to the list of rude people I dislike, which may well show up in my writing, are:

People who leave their shopping cart in the middle of the isle while they comparison-shop brands of canned green beans. What's the difference between a $.79 and a $.89 can of beans, other than ten cents? I don't know but I'll have the answer in twenty minutes. Why don't you use the other isle; can't you see I'm busy?

People who drive railcar-sized vehicles they pull in front of you at the gas station as you pump the final gallon into your tank. They're so big you can't get around them and so have to wait fifteen minutes while they pump forty gallons. Your revenge? It cost them $130 to fill their tank.

People who have no idea what they want, even after standing in line for ten minutes. This happened at the ticket counter of a local arts center. A woman made the cashier explain every show and exactly where every seat was located, while we waited behind her. The cashier called another lady out to help us, and we had to move the rude lady's purse because she'd left it front of the second register.

People who let their children, even encourage, yell and scream and jump on the furniture in your doctor's office reception room. No explanation is needed.

A little bit of myself crept into my second novel, THE MIGHTY T, too. How could it not?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Wizzy And The Traffic Light

Frank got the call from dispatch at one, just as Doris sat his burger down on his table. He listened to the message, but was sure he’d misheard so he thumbed the radio button and said, “Come again, Thelma? I didn’t copy that.”

Thelma repeated the message, Frank thumbed the radio off and said, “Well, shit. Wrap this up to go, would you Doris? I got a call.”

“Damn, Frank. I woulda put it a bag for you if you’d asked. Now I got another plate to wash.”

Frank gave Doris ten dollars, said “Keep the change, for all your trouble” and left Wilber’s Diner, climbed into his old Jeep Cherokee and headed into town.

Buckley, Montana, population two hundred, had one traffic signal, out front of the post office, which also served as the library and video rental store. Across the street was a Shell station.

Frank parked behind the Shell, crept around front and peered across the street at the post office. A rifle fired, the crack echoing across the street. Frank ducked behind a gas pump, though better and ran into the Shell’s office where he found Lenny, who owned the gas station, crouching behind the counter.

“What the hell, Frank?” Lenny said.

“How long’s he been there?” Frank said.

“Sonabitch’s been shooting that twenty-two of his for a half hour now! He’s gotta be drunk. Goddamn, who sold Wizzy booze?”

Frank raised his head and peered through the window. “There ain’t but one store in Buckley, Lenny. Who’d you think sold it to him?”

“Henry knows better than that, don’t he? Don’t he know why Wizzy can’t have no booze?”

“You’d think, after what happened last Thanksgiving.”

“And the Fourth of July.”

Frank crept to the door and yelled across the street, “Wizzy, this here is Frank. What the hell you doin’?”

After a pause, a voice echoed back, “Frank, don’t you try nothin’! You stay put ’till I’m done!”

“Wizzy, for God’s sake, put the twenty-two down and come on out before someone gets hurt. You don’t want no one to get hurt, do you Wizzy?”

“You shut up, Frank! I can’t take this no more and I mean to end it right now.”

Another rifle crack, and a bullet caromed off the traffic light’s metal casing, making it swing back and forth above the intersection.

Frank ducked back into the office and said to Lenny, “It’s the stoplight, ain’t it? He’s shootin’ at the stoplight. Goddamn Wizzy.”

“Wizzy’s a good shot,” Lenny said. “Best in the county two years straight. He shoulda’ hit it by now. He’s already fired seven or eight times.”

“When Wizzy’s been drinkin’, he couldn’t shoot an elephant if he was sittin’ on it.” Frank blew out a breath. “Well, I suppose if he can’t hit the stoplight, he can’t hit me, either.”

Frank went out front again, this time as far as the street. With hands on hips, he hollered, “You come out now, Wizzy! Just lay the rifle down and come on out. We’ll forget this whole thing happened.”

“Like hell, Frank! Every time I come to town that damn light is red! Every time! You hear me Frank? I spent half my life sittin’ at that damn light, and I ain’t gonna do it no more.”

“Wizzy, we only got one stoplight. Now come on, you’re scarin’ Lenny.”

Wizzy’s twenty-two cracked again and Frank ducked, but didn’t run. “Goddamnit Wizzy!”

Frank could hear Wizzy muttering and swearing as he reloaded the single-shot rifle, then thought he should’ve charged him after he’d shot; he might’ve grabbed him before he reloaded.

He opened his mouth to holler when the rifle cracked again. This time sparks flew off the stoplight and glass tinkled down to the street. The light blinked a few times, then went out.

Wizzy whooped and laughed, came out of the post office, laid the rifle on the sidewalk and said to Frank, “I ain’t never gonna sit at that damn light agin, I tell you what.”

“You’re the dumbest drunk I ever saw, Wizzy,” Frank said. “Not only do I gotta haul your ass to jail for distrubin’ the peace, you’re gonna hafta pay for that light to be fixed. I bet it’ll cost you three hunderd.”

“I ain’t payin’ fer no light what has a red part. I tell you what, Frank. I ain’t.”

This will be me one day. When I snap, it’ll be over the damn traffic lights. They’re always red. How much of that is a man expected to take?

Much thanks to Wizzy for letting me borrow his name for this short story. Wizzy’s a colorful character from my book, THE MIGHTY T. He’s been great to work with.

P.S.  Here's the link to my other Wizzy post:  << Click here >>

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back Story and Flawed Characters

Think this guys has some character flaws?

He dated enough to quell most rumors he was gay. Sex was okay but too messy, too intimate. And sex usually took place in the bedroom, where shoes are kept. Daniel had eighty-two pairs, a fact he preferred to keep private. He was sure that once a woman learned he had a thing for shoes she would leave and tell him to never call again. Few people saw the inside of his apartment and no one, ever, went into his bedroom.
All-in-all, Daniel Lawless was an odd man with strange passions, but not so strange that he couldn’t fit in. He discovered he could have his shoes and his music so long as he enjoyed them quietly. He was content and prepared, if necessary, to live out his life alone.
He was not, however, prepared in any way for the horror that was descending upon him and the people he had sworn to serve and protect. Modesto needed a Dirty Harry, a man of action who carried a big gun he wasn’t afraid to use, but what they got instead was Daniel Lawless, a man who carried a small gun he preferred not to use, a man who liked shoes.

When I completed CANALS, it weighed in at a hefty 200,000 words; a bit much. It was the first novel I’d completed and I thought I was the new Stephen King.

In CANALS, I did something authors are strongly advised not to do: I dumped all of my main character’s, Daniel Lawless, back story into one chapter; an “info dump,” they call it. When editing, I chopped a lot of the back story out, but left it together. I split the back story up in my second book, THE MIGHTY T. I think the story flows better that way because when you give back story, you’re interrupting the plot and you want to keep that to a minimum.

What is back story? It’s when an author explains what happened before the timeline of the book. It’s usually used to explain why someone is the way they are, why they’re motivated to do whatever they’re doing in the book.

In CANALS, Lawless is a cop who’s always mindful of what’s happening to his shoes. He kicks a dirt clod in frustration, and immediately regrets doing it because it left a mark on the leather. When he’s finally alone at the scene, he pulls a small shoeshine kit out from under the front seat of his cruiser and makes a quick repair, buffing the mark out. That behavior is a bit odd, don’t you think? I do.

Characters with quirks, or flaws, are more interesting than characters who’re perfect, or think they’re perfect. Which reminds me of a story . . .

When growing up, my older brother (and my only brother) appointed himself the family narc. I’m fifty-four now so I’ve forgotten most of the times he ratted me out, but two memories remain.

When I was about five, our family had a burn barrel for trash; we burned all our paper trash on designated burn days. I was a budding arsonist then and had been warned that if I was caught near a fire again I’d get a whooping. Some time later, on a burn day, I noticed the fire was going to go out before all the trash was burned, so, to help the family, I stirred the fire with a stick so all the paper would get consumed. I was just trying to help, right?

My brother saw me and said, “You’re not supposed to play with fire. I’m telling.” Rat! I’d hoped my mom would do the whooping because her whoopings barely hurt, but no such luck. Shortly before my dad got home, I hid in the back of the closest, which was a mistake as it made him madder to have to hunt me down and pull me out.

(Mind you, if we kids were whooped, it was always on the bottom. His paddle of choice was a foot-long ruler from New Zealand, made of ridiculously hard wood apparently only found in that country. I wanted to throw it in the burn barrel . . .)

Flash forward to age twelve-ish. I had a Daisy BB gun I used to keep the bird population in the neighborhood in check. I was told to stop shooting birds, but how could I? I was sure they were plotting to take over the block by pecking out our eyes. My brother saw me shoot a bird and ratted me out. I was relieved of my BB gun.

My friends and I used to call him “Mr. Righteous,” because he thought he was the conscious of the family. We mostly disliked him. He’s a great guy now, though. A really great guy. Go figure.

When writing Lawless’s character, I wanted the reader to think he had no chance against the monster. He’d always avoided conflict when he could; he wasn’t a womanizer, at all; he liked shoes; he drank wine instead of beer and hard liquor—he wasn’t a macho cop. And here comes this monster, an unstoppable killing machine. An impossible setup.

Modesto needed a Dirty Harry, but what they got instead was Daniel Lawless, a guy who liked shoes. Can he rise to the occasion? You’ll have to read CANALS to find out.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Formatting For ebooks and Print - Part 2: Em and En Dash

Last week I discussed the proper use of the ellipsis here. Today I’d like to tackle the correct use of the em and en dash. (By “correct use” I mean correct as I see it currently used in the fiction I’ve been reading lately and how I currently use it.)

The em dash looks like this:  

It’s created on a Windows machine by holding down the Alt key while typing 0 1 5 1 on the numeric keypad.

The en dash looks like this:  

It’s created on a Windows machine by holding down the Alt key while typing 0 1 5 0 on the numeric keypad. You’ll notice it’s shorter than the em dash, as the lowercase letter “n” is more narrow than the lowercase letter “m.”

The en dash is typically used when writing out ranges, like this:
The odds for my horse winning the race are ten–to–one. 
I don’t see the en dash used very often in fiction.

The em dash is typically used to point out a break of thought, like this:
A third ghost looked like the man on the Quaker Oats box. He appeared four weeks ago and was now making daily appearances, but so far had been mute. He would speak one day—they all eventually talked—and then there would be no shutting him up.
There is typically no space before or after the em dash, either in print books or ebooks. I have found exceptions, though, a few ebooks. A space was placed before and after the em dash. This made short justified lines look better on the ereader screen but had little effect on long lines and no effect on ragged-right lines.

What do I mean by long and short justified lines? Because ereaders don’t hyphenate lines, when justifying lines with large words, especially on a small ereader screen, large spaces are inserted between words. This is necessary to ensure that the end of the last word on the line is flush on the right. If there’s an em dash on the line, it will appear jammed together with the words before and after it. If you place a space before and after the em dash, the ereader will add space between the words and the em dash and the line will appear more pleasant to the eye.

Your choice. I like the appearance of the extra space far better on small readers like the iPhone. It makes little difference on my iPad, though. What devices do you think your readers will use most to read your books?

An em dash is also used when a speaker has been interrupted, like this:
She checked her watch: no time for a latte, and ran into someone. Knocked hard, she grabbed a parking meter and prevented a nasty fall, said, “I’m sorry, I guess I wasn’t looking at where I—”
The wall to her left puffed; shards of brick bit into her arm. Her face exploded.
This woman was interrupted by a bullet. Normally the interruption comes when another character butts in.

When used to point out a break in thought, the em dash can be overused, so apply it judiciously.

By comparison, the regular hyphen looks like this:  -

Here they are, from small to large: hyphen, en dash, em dash:  -   –   —

Friday, September 30, 2011

Formatting For ebooks and Print - Part 1: The Ellipsis

One of the biggest gripes readers have about self-published writers, aside from typos, which is gripe number one, is that their ebooks and print books look unprofessional. This post is the first of several I plan on writing about formatting books for distribution.

I have a background in typography, as a hobby. Years ago I studied typography as if it was my profession, even though it wasn’t. I bought a couple dozen good books on the subject and own about three thousand typefaces. (Could you guess I have a compulsive personality?) I had the best-looking business brochures.

Now that I’m (finally) ready to offer THE MIGHTY T as a print book, I’m hoping all those hours spent pouring over typography how-to books will come in handy.

Today I’d like to talk about the ellipsis, as it’s commonly used in today’s printed fiction. In case you don’t know, an ellipsis is used when a character doesn’t finish his or her sentence, either because they still thinking about what they’d like to say, can’t remember a word, or they drift off on purpose to allow the person or persons they’re speaking to finish the sentence for them.

For example, from THE MIGHTY T, Chapter 1:
“Shut up!” he shouted at them. “You’re gonna fuh . . . fuh . . . fuh . . . screw this up!”
In this example, Danny, the crazy sniper, is trying to say the F-word, but can’t.

Here’s another example:
“We were planning on taking the kids to Mulligans later,” Bensen said. “Drive them around the go-cart course and let ’em whack each other with golf clubs, but we can do that next Saturday . . .” He trailed off, letting Grant make the call.
Here Bensen “trails off” to allow Grant to make the decision as to whether they’ll return to the dam that night, or tomorrow. Grant picks tomorrow because it’s not urgent-urgent, and his friend already had an evening planned with his family.

I imagine that “trailing off” may not necessarily be verbal, but rather may be body language or a certain expression. Instead of explaining all that, you can add an ellipsis, followed by a few words of explanation if the reason for the ellipsis isn’t obvious to the reader.

I use the ellipsis quite a bit in dialogue because most people I hang around with don’t speak in full and correct sentences. We get distracted and don’t finish our thoughts; we open our mouths before we know what we’re going to say, necessitating a hasty retreat when we realize we might say something we’ll regret; we stutter; and we “trail off” as Bensen did. I think it adds realism to dialogue.

Typographically speaking, when printing an ellipsis you should use the ellipsis character, which is not just three periods in a row but rather the ASCII character produced by holding down the Alt key while typing 1 3 3 on the numeric keypad. (On the PC; Mac users will have to figure it out.) This produces this character:

Notice that it’s slightly different from typing three periods in a row:


The spacing is different. (In printed text, the ASCII ellipsis is wider than three periods typed in succession. It may not look the same on your computer monitor.)

After considerable study, most modern works of fiction are not typeset using the typographical ellipsis because it would look awkward on the printed page or ebook reader. Instead of the ellipsis character, typesetters now use this:

. . .

A space followed by a period, followed by a space, followed by a period, followed by a space, followed by a period—three spaces before three periods. After the last period you add another space if there are more words before the closing quotes, or any punctuation, even the closing quotes, other than a period. (See my examples if this isn’t clear.) Typographically, if the ellipsis ends the sentence you should add a final period. I just don’t see it being done, though, so I leave it off.

Why are modern novels set like this when it’s typographically incorrect? Because it improves the spacing on the printed or electronic page, especially on the printed page as all modern novels are set with justified text, not ragged-right.

“Justified” text means the last letter of the last word of each line in a paragraph lines up on the right, like how this paragraph is set. Page setting software has to add space between words to make the line stretch. Setting ellipses with a space before the ellipsis, and spaces in between each period, allows the software to stretch the ellipsis, making the line more visually appealing to the eye. 

I have several reading apps on my iPad;  most allow me to view the text with either ragged-right or justified paragraphs. Writing the ellipses as I suggest improves the appearance of ragged-right paragraphs, though perhaps not as much as with justified paragraphs.

I hope you’ve found this information helpful. Obviously, it’s better if you can afford to pay someone to format your manuscripts for you, but if you have to do it yourself, you might as well do it right.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Cops: The Feds Vs. Locals

“People,” Johansen said to the group, after she and Grant walked into the room. “This is the detective from Modesto I told you about, Grant Starr. Detective Starr, will you tell us what you know about the unsubs?”
Grant spent the next ten minutes telling a gaggle of agents and officers from local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies what he knew about Samuel Raimes, III, which wasn’t a lot, and what he suspected. 
“So,” someone in a fed shirt said, “you don’t have any evidence. Your case against this guy is all circumstantial.”
“No, we have some evidence,” Grant said. “Not on Raimes, but we have solid evidence on the woman, Mindy. We have her fingerprints and she was ID’ed by a witness. We think she was here this morning and killed the two dam operators. They were knifed, which is her MO.
“We also got some prints off a steel shed they put up in La Grange. One of them came back army, a guy who was discharged after getting caught with drugs. His and another set of prints were found on evidence at the house of the MID guy who got killed the same night the TID guy got killed. So we have that, too.”
“But against the guy, Raimes, you got nothing,” the fed said.
“Well, hell,” Grant said, a little pissed off at the fed. “At least I got something. What’d you bring to the party?”
“I just got here.”
“Well, until you have something, I suggest you shut the fuck up.”
“Hey…” The guy stood, and Grant took a step his way.
The noise level in the room ratcheted up: feds sat up and thrust their shoulders back, making their chairs creak; locals snickered and pivoted to look at the fed, who was ten inches shorter than Grant.
Johansen stood and said, “Guys, a pissing match isn’t going to help us find the unsubs.” Grant and the fed continued their stare-down. “This is a national tragedy, the worst thing since 9/11. Let’s try and keep our heads here.” She placed a hand on Grant’s chest, not pushing, touching.
This scene from THE MIGHTY T takes place at the New Don Pedro Dam in La Grange, California. The terrorist who calls himself John Lightfoot had just successfully attacked the O'Shaunessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy, causing a near-catastrophic flood. The feds have moved in and taken over the investigation.

Detectives Grant Starr and Ralph Bensen were at Don Pedro when the flood hit. Grant needed to call his chief but Don Pedro has no cell coverage, forcing him to ask to use a landline in a building Homeland Security has taken for their headquarters. He tries desperately to avoid Area Supervisor Barbara Johansen, knowing if she sees him he'll likely get sucked into Fed World and lose half the day.

Grant finds a phone and makes his call. He and Bensen are about to enjoy some free fed snacks, coffee and pastries, when Grant hears Johansen's voice calling him from somewhere down the hall. She asks him to brief a gaggle of cops and he gets sucked into Fed World, as he feared he would.

I'm not a cop, nor has anyone in my family, to my knowledge, ever been in law enforcement. What I know about how well federal cops get along with local cops I learned from TV and novels—so take this as fiction if you like. I imagine the locals don't like it when the feds march in and take over investigations; it's gotta be a pride thing.

I took advantage of this real, or imagined, animosity to create some conflict in my story. Stories without conflict are dull. I was pulling for Grant, of course; he shoulda punched the weasel fed in the nose!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Is Having a Print Book Important To Ebook Sales?

I published two ebooks this spring but as of yet haven't had a print book up for sale. I've dragged my feet on this because... For several reasons, I suppose.

The cover art for CANALS is O.K. for an ebook but would not work for print because the resolution of the image is too low. I'll have to find a new image, or pay someone to make one for me. I hadn't even planned on releasing CANALS because I thought I would write only in the action/thriller genre. Those plans changed and some months CANALS sells better than THE MIGHTY T.

The cover art for THE MIGHTY T is ready to go, I think. I just need to finish the back cover. I dragged my feet on that because I was waiting for some good blurbs, or testimonials. I have those so I am without that excuse now.

My last excuse is my archaic computer and software. I think this Windows XP computer is six or seven years old and the software is even older. I use Word 97, for crying out loud. I used to use PageMaker but haven't for ten plus years. I formatted THE MIGHTY T for print on an old copy of MicroSoft Publisher. I plan on turning the document into a PDF with a print program called PDF995--old school. It wouldn't work with Word but it seems to be working with Publisher.

I know that I've lost a few sales by not having a printed copy available but I'm not sure how many. THE MIGHTY T could be marketed locally, because it's set locally, and in the San Francisco area, because the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is owned by the City of San Francisco. I need a print copy to properly market locally.

Now that I've rambled on, I'd like to get some feedback from others, writers or readers.

For writers who have printed copies of their books, has it helped your overall sales and your ebook sales?

For readers, would you buy an ebook if the printed book wasn't available? (Especially if you prefer printed books.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Want To Know Who The Bad Guy Is?

    “Like I said, I didn’t think you had,” Grant said. “But I’m going to ask you the same question I asked the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund: can you recall ever kicking anyone out of your group for espousing violence?”
    There was another pause. “Who did you talk to at the Sierra Club?”
    “Tom Richardson.”
    “Hmm.... Did he say he knew anyone like that?”
    “He said maybe, but he would have to check into it. Why?”
    “I’m surprised he didn’t mention Samuel Raimes.”
    “Well, he didn’t. Who’s Samuel Raimes?” Grant wrote the name on his pad.
    “I’m not saying he’s involved in this,” Cranston said. “I haven’t heard anything about him for, oh, eight or nine years. For all I know he could be in prison by now.”
    “Tell me about him.” Grant was all ears; he finally had a name, someone to run down.
    “I did some computer work for the Sierra Club years ago and had to attend a few board meetings. They talked about Raimes in one of the meetings.”
    “What’d they say?”
    “That he was tired of waiting for the judges and politicians to do something about the... Let’s see... Something to do with salmon.” Cranston went quiet for a few moments while he thought. “I remember now. He was upset about the salmon counts in the Tuolumne River. They were dropping and he didn’t feel enough was being done about it. That’s true, by the way. The Chinook salmon are nearly extinct in some rivers.”
    Grant said, “I’ve heard that.”
    “He wanted the Tuolumne River and the Delta returned to their natural state, which, unfortunately, will never happen. But I don’t remember them saying he wanted to blow up anything or kill someone. They just said he was crazy.”

In a "who done it," there are two ways to reveal who the bad guy is: you can keep it a secret until the end, or nearly the end, or you can tell the reader early on. Both methods have merit.

Making the reader wait until the end of the story allows you to build suspense, perhaps more so than tipping your hand early on. 

The most common way to handle the identity of a bad guy is to make it one of the characters the reader is familiar with, but was completely unaware it was him or her. It could be the jealous aunt, or, yes, even the butler. It should be a big shock the reader didn't see coming. When watching films on TV or DVD, it's always fun to stop the show and guess "who done it." A clever author will have most guessing wrong.

I've written that I read a lot of John Sandford books (all of them, in fact). Sandford occasionally keeps the identity of the bad guy(s) hidden while still letting the reader know something about him or her. He'll give the bad guy a nickname, such as something the press might be calling him. In his first novel, the bad guy was called "Maddog." The reader didn't know the Maddog's true identity until about halfway through the story, but that didn't stop Sandford from telling you a lot about him.

In THE MIGHTY T, I let the reader know who the bad guy is in the first chapter; I even let the cops know who he is early on. It's still fun to watch them go about trying to catch him because he's always a step ahead, the characters are interesting, the dialogue is good, and there's enough action to keep your attention even though you already know "who done it."

If the story is well-written, I enjoy both ploys. How about you?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Scrivener Screen Shots

Scooter asked for a graphic of my Scrivener screen. Here it is.

On the left you can see I've organized each chapter into scenes. You can also see a folder for characters, places, and research. Everything can be linked into the Scrivener document, even web sites, PDFs, and documents or pictures on your computer.

Upper right is the scene synopsis. This shows up as a card when you click on the Card View organizer in the middle top of the screen. Document notes are on the right. This is where I write notes about what might be needed in a rewrite like more description and the day and time, if it's important.

You'll notice in the upper left corner I have a document titled "Opening Scene" and under it "Alt-Bull Jumped". This is text deleted from the scene but saved because I thought there might be a chance I would want to put it back in. It won't be complied in the document or included in word counts because I've unchecked the "Include In Compile" box on the right, in the General Meta-Data area. The graphic you see is an actual scene so it's labeled "Scene", "First Draft", and the "Include in Compile" box is checked.

Hope this helps.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Scrivener for Windows Update

I wrote about some tools I've found for writing, for both the PC and the iPad, in a previous post. This post is a brief update on the writing program Scrivener.

I'd like to get a MacBook Pro, but it's not in the budget. Scrivener is in version 2.0 (I believe) for the Mac but is still in beta for Windows. The current beta version is .26. The finished product is set to be released in August, if they stay on schedule. I believe it's only $35. I've had no problems with the beta but many features are still missing.

Scrivener is a feature-laden program; there's a steep learning curve if you want to use it all. I was drawn to it because it lets you organize your work into chapters and/or scenes.

I wrote both my novels in Word 97, with each chapter as a separate document. That worked well for about the first half of the book, but when I wrote the last half I had a hard time remembering some character names and who did what to whom. To dig the info out I had to first remember which chapter it was in so I could open the correct document and run searches until I found what I was looking for. Sometimes I found it quickly, sometimes it took a while.

After the first draft was written I combined all the chapter documents into one big file. That worked better for searches but was a large cumbersome file to handle.

I've been writing my next Grant Starr novel scene-by-scene, with each scene in a separate tab in Scrivener. It's been so much easier to go back and find something or someone. In addition, Scrivener has easy-to-use summary features. There's a box on the right side of the screen—when you're not in full-screen writing mode, which I usually am—where you can jot down notes about what happens in the scene. You can also organize chapters and scenes with file cards and a character-based flow chart.

Another thing I've done differently is write scenes out of chronological order. I'd stick with one character and write what they do, say, throughout the week. Then I'd go back and break that document up so it fits chronologically. It's helped with character consistency because I could focus on what one person was doing. I didn't do this with my first two books; they were written straight through from scene one to the final scene.

The problem with jumping around in time is it's easy to lose the continuity of the work. Because you're jumping around in time, it's difficult at times to picture the plot chronologically. The fix is to edit the scenes and chapters as one continuous document, which Scrivener lets you do. It's not as smooth as editing one document in Word, but it still allows you to keep your story organized into scenes and chapters, if you choose to do so.

I place my Scrivener file in my DropBox directory so it's automatically backed up on the "cloud" and it's backed up via my portable hard drive. Scrivener also lets you make a zipped back up file at any time.

I do a lot of writing on my iPad, with either OmnWriter or iA Writer. Both programs save files in simple .txt file formats so they're easy to import into Scrivener. If you want to edit part of a Scrivener file, you have to export it to a .txt file, then place it in the DropBox directory. Once done, you can access the file from your iPad. iWriter links directly with DropBox through their menu.

I plan on buying Scrivener when it becomes available. If and when I get a Mac, I'll have to buy the Mac version. I won't mind because I'll finally have a Mac and it's only $35 (maybe $45, I forget).

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Monster With Personality

Creature from "Aliens"

This was good: the prey’s psychic output had increased ten-fold, exciting the creature. It fed on the rich emotions.

Were it not for the new program, its new adaptation, the creature’s instincts would demand that it now devour its prey and flee. Instead, the program instructed it to do something it never would have otherwise thought to do: reveal itself to the prey. It was not by accident that its species had survived for a million years; they were masters in the art of stealth. Their enemies could not destroy what they did not know existed or could not see. Revealing itself went against this most basic of instincts.
But it promised great potential psychic rewards.
It rose out of the water, revealing its ancient face to the prey. The reward the new programming had promised was realized, in greater abundance than imagined; it gorged itself on the prey’s fear.
It opened its mouth and bared its teeth, to see how the prey would respond. It was again rewarded.
Burke almost died of fear when a large black, thing, rose up from the canal. It floated with him for a few seconds, then opened its eyes; three yellow slashes in its forehead blinked, and he screamed louder than he ever thought he could scream.
He slapped and kicked at the water, trying to distance himself from the thing. Fear galvanized him, flooding his body with adrenaline. His mind momentarily shut down the pain pathway in his spinal cord so he wouldn’t feel the throbbing leg; he couldn’t afford the distraction.

He bumped up against the canal wall and flung his arms behind him, trying to crabwalk up the wall. His hands slipped. Panic threatened to consume him and he searched frantically for a possible solution, some way to survive, to get away from this impossible thing.
The creature opened its mouth, revealing eight-inch-long silvery teeth that flashed and sparkled in the moonlight; jagged and wicked: he understood how he had lost his leg, and he knew he would not be leaving the canal alive.

His mind slipped toward insanity.

If you read or write horror fiction, do you think the monsters (aliens, creatures, gnomes, etc.) should have a personality? Or should they just be a big mean monster?

In my horror novel, CANALS, the canal monster makes its appearance early in the book. Its physical characteristics are revealed bit-by-bit, as is its personality. It thinks, calculates, and makes adjustments in its feeding pattern as it adapts to its prey. It even has a gender (which I won't reveal). The reader learns later in the book the monster is one of a species that was once abundant on the...

In some books and films, monsters are just monsters. They show up out of nowhere to kill or eat people. Their "motivation" is usually filling their stomachs or plain savagery. Most don't have offspring they're trying to protect or feed and aren't part of any community. They're just monsters.

In the movie ALIEN, and subsequent follow-ups, the monster had a personality and a goal: the perpetuation of its species. It corralled the humans into its nest to use as incubators for its young. One wonders how it survived before the planet was colonized.

What kind of monsters do you prefer, if you like stories with monsters? Do you like the simple, straightforward monster with no personality? Or do you prefer a monster that's a little more complex?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Character Description: How Much Do You Want?

Inside, a man sat behind a laminated wood desk tapping away on a computer keyboard with thick, stubby fingers, his eyes glued to the flat panel screen. The walls of the office were covered with framed photographs of canals and dams from different eras. A descriptive title under the frame of one read “Fresno Scrapers.” It showed mustached-men posing by a horse-drawn contraption with a long metal blade while standing in a wide, shallow dirt trench he assumed was an early canal. There were pictures of big dams, little dams, dirt canals, and cement-lined canals. Lawless couldn’t see anything personal on the walls or desk.
McFrazier glanced up and jumped when he saw Lawless.
“Sorry. Didn’t see you come in.”
He stood and reached over the desk to shake hands. Ralph McFrazier was a stout, hairy man with thick arms and wide shoulders, dressed for summer in an open-collar short-sleeved white cotton shirt and lightweight cotton pants. Lawless imagined something ugly but comfortable on his feet, like Clark’s; he didn’t look like a loafer man. He had a full beard, heavy eyebrows, and bristly hair on top of his head. Thick, dark curly hair covered his forearms and the back of his fingers, tickling Lawless. More dark hair burst out of his shirt at his throat, reminding Lawless of the way a plant will curl and twist to get more of itself into the sunlight.
“Ralph McFrazier,” he said as they shook hands. His voice was gruff, and Lawless thought he might be smiling but it was difficult to tell through the hair.
“Detective Daniel Lawless. Nice to meet you, Mr. McFrazier.” Lawless expected to have his hand crushed, but McFrazier’s grip was soft, almost effeminate.
“Call me Ralph. Mr. McFrazier was my father. Sit down.” He waved a furry arm at a worn chair behind Lawless and sat back down. He talked in short bursts, like a machine gun.
“I’d like to talk to you about Jose Sanchez,” Lawless said, pulling out his notepad. 
“Yes. Terrible thing. What happened?”
“We’re not sure yet. The coroner’s doing the autopsy today. We hope to know more.” 
“No clue yet?”
“Afraid not.” Lawless found himself talking like McFrazier, and didn’t like it. “I understand he worked for you.”
“Somewhere down the line. His direct supervisor is Jake Franklin. He can tell you more.” 
Something beeped: McFrazier glanced at his computer screen and hit a key. The beeping stopped.
“Can you tell me what he was doing out there so early?”
“Can’t tell for sure. Probably checking a gate.” 
“Gate? What kind of gate?”
“Irrigation gate. Lets the water out. They get stuck. The farmers complain.” McFrazier turned his palms up, shrugged, and rolled his eyes.
“What tools does he use?”
“Wrench. Drill. Small stuff.”
“Does he use a chainsaw, anything like that?”
McFrazier frowned. “No. He doesn’t work on trees.” He looked at his watch, barely visible through his arm hair, and said, “Lunch time. Got an appointment. See Franklin. He can tell you more.”
He stood and stuck out his hand again, indicating their talk was over.

Since you’re a reader, let me ask you something: do you like characters whose physical descriptions are laid out for you in the text, or do you like to fill in those details yourself? Or is your preference somewhere in between?

I’ve read all of Johnathon Kellerman’s “Alex Delaware” novels. He likes to describe his main characters’ physical attributes in detail, especially the clothes they wear. He names designers, styles, and brands I’m not familiar with so it doesn’t help me picture the character at all. They’re extra words to me, and frankly, they make me feel a little naive. Like I should know the names of popular designers.

One of my favorite authors, John Sandford, uses a lighter hand when describing his characters. He might spend one paragraph, maybe two sentences.

My wife reads nothing but romance and romance-mystery. It’s tough to get her to read anything but Nora Roberts. She likes some physical description; color of eyes and hair, full or thin lips, height, fit or flabby, etc. She likes to be given mind pictures instead of making them up herself.

I think physical description is very important to the romance genre, and maybe to most genre fiction. And there are lessons to be learned here.

Like John Locke, John Sandford has written that he knows his reader demographic well: mostly women read their books so they write their main male character in a way women find attractive. 

I’ve not read any of Locke’s books but this is what he’s written about his MC Donovan Creed: 
“With my character, Creed, I want to give you a guy who is hard to like, then force you to like him. Women make up 75 to 80% of my audience, and those in my target group get the fact that what Creed really needs in his life is the right woman. My readers are the right woman for a guy like Creed, and when they see him saying something dumb, or making a bad decision, they shake their heads and laugh—because every one of my female readers is smarter than Creed when it comes to relationships, and they know it. They think he’s rough, but worth saving.”
Sandford wrote Lucas to be appealing to women: big and tough, rich with a fancy car, likes women—a lot, has a dark dangerous side (the bad boy), dresses well, etc.

The description of Ralph McFrazier, a minor character in CANALS, at the beginning of this post was too long and largely unnecessary. This is his only scene; why spend so many words describing him? I think I did a better job with the MC in CANALS, Daniel Lawless, giving out snippets of description interwoven through the beginning of the book. 

In the future, while writing genre fiction, I think I’ll describe people with a light hand, maybe try and “show” looks through dialog or action instead of narrative: “After Amber’s eyes adjusted, she saw Grant in the booth. Male heads turned and interested eyes tracked her as she walked through the bar.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

"Branding" As John Locke Does It

   As a follow-up to my last post on branding, here are my "crib notes" from a John Locke guest post on Jack Konrath's blog. John hung around the rest of the day, after the post went up, and answered questions. I extracted what I thought was important and saved it in Word.
   If you'd rather read the original post you will find it here. Take a look at John Locke's author page on Amazon here to see how he's branded his books.
   Why bother looking at what another self-published author has done? As an example of someone who treats their writing like a business, who formulated a business plan and executed it. And he stuck with it. Notice he said he'd made a combined $47 on Amazon through September 2010. He's well over $100K a month now because he didn't bail when his plan wasn't immediately successful.
   I think it's possible to write in different genres, but if you do, you will likely need to make YOU your brand, not your books. Not impossible, but tougher, in my opinion.


-  Marketing is all about giving people a place to go and a reason to go there. My advice is to start on Twitter. The Twitter author community is very supportive. That’s how I started. Next, write a blog that shows off your writing style. You can do much more, that’s all the marketing you will need, if you can build up a following. But it is KEY that your tweets and blogs give an insight into your writing style.

-  I am a businessman, and I look at each of my books as an employee. I make a one-time invest­ment in each of these “employees” ($995.00) and send them out into the world to make sales for me. Some employees do a better job than others. Right now I have six employees, and they are all in the top 100. This past Thursday night, my 7th employee, “A Girl Like You” went out into the world, and she is already #114. I trust her, and believe she will sell enough to get into the top 100 in the next few days. “She” has already earned back her investment. But unlike a real employee, I don’t have to deal with her in person, or match her social security or provide benefits. She works 24 hours a day for me for free, and will, for the rest of her life. --How can this not be the best investment in the world?

-  I started writing about two years ago. I had no training, no experience, and never attended a seminar. It probably helped that I was an English major in college.

-  I believe you CAN judge a book by it’s cover, and in fact, it’s one of the best ways to judge one! Again, your cover should appeal to your target audience.

-  With my character, Creed, I want to give you a guy who is hard to like, then force you to like him. Women make up 75 to 80% of my audience, and those in my target group get the fact that what Creed really needs in his life is the right woman. My readers are the right woman for a guy like Creed, and when they see him saying something dumb, or making a bad decision, they shake their heads and laugh--because every one of my female readers is smarter than Creed when it comes to relationships, and they know it. They think he’s rough, but worth saving.

-  I’m not writing for the masses, I’m writing to a specific audience. My audience likes my humor, understands my quirks, accepts my mistakes. They’re my closest friends. What better friends on earth can a person have than the people who love your books? I love--deeply and profoundly love--my readers, and I hope they love me, too. And Donovan Creed, despite our faults. I think they know our hearts are in the right place.

When that next book comes out, I’m hoping my family of readers will smile and say, “Hey--John’s home!” --and will welcome me with open arms. (--If this sounds like a silly fantasy to you, please don’t burst my bubble!)

-  Kindle represents 90% of my sales.

-  I praise a number of people on Twitter. I read their blogs and review their sites every chance I get. Sometimes I’m too busy to write each day, so I’ll save 10 or 15 comments and post them all at once. My friends forgive me for this, because when I see something I like, I mention it to my follow­ers, and they usually check it out.

-  You’re right in that marketing is often a matter of finding a need and filling it. In my case, I just wanted to write about this guy, Donovan Creed, and all the crazy people and situations he encount­ers. After I wrote my first three novels, I started trying to figure out who else in the world might like to get to know Creed.

-  It takes me 100 hours to write a series novel, 150 if it’s a new one, like Follow the Stone.

I sort of have a review committee: I send my manuscript to three people before publishing, to get their take. These people “get” my work, and are not afraid to tell me when something in the story isn’t working for them. I trust their instincts most of the time.

As for increasing the price of my downloads, I don’t want to. I’m charging my reader less than a penny for each hour of my writing, and think that’s a fair exchange. In other words, if you hate my writing, remember, it’s only 99 cents. You could buy a flippin’ Starbucks mocha latte, or 5 of my books!

-  Early on, more than a year ago, I offered a free book to the first 40 people who requested one on Twitter. Some were nice enough to give me reviews, though I didn’t ask for them. One thing I’ve learned since those days is to ask for reviews, though I haven’t given any freebies out.

-  With the exception of Lethal People and Saving Rachel, I have paid the author, Winslow Eliot, to edit my books. I feel more comfortable doing that, because every time another set of eyes sees your manuscript, they will find something that everyone else has missed.

-  As recently as September, my total book royalty income was, I believe, $47. People laughed at me, saying, “Why are you writing two more when you can’t sell the three you’ve already written?” I said, “When my audience finds me, they’re going to want five books, not three.”

-  99 cents will move ‘em off the fence.

-  In my experience, Kindle book buyers are extremely astute, and I agree there are many who seek to discover a new talent. For 99 cents, they will give indie authors like you and me a try.

-  The business model I was referring to is the idea itself: that your books can be offered on this world-wide platform for pennies, with all the accounting done for you, and you don’t owe any money until you make a sale. You don’t need an office, don’t need employees, or even a telephone. And for a one-time payment, you get a lifetime of income at a 35% royalty level. To me, it’s just an unbelievable business opportunity.

-  How do I outline my novels? I don’t really outline them, I “write” the novel in my head, then type it out a scene at a time, whenever I find myself with a couple of unencumbered hours. But I never sit down at the keyboard unless I know exactly what I’m going to type. Not word-for-word, but pretty close.

-  As for category, it would be great if your book fits in a thin one, where there is less competition. But you’re limited, since your book has to fit that category. The more precisely you can match, the more likely you’ll be able to find your target audience.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Do You Have A Brand?

   I began writing CANALS in 2004. I dragged myself out of bed every morning between five and five-thirty, booted up an old Windows 95 PC in the spare bedroom, and sat and forced myself to write. Writing almost every day, it took five months to complete the first draft.
   Writing CANALS was an experience I’ll always cherish. I thought I was going to be another Stephen King so I wrote CANALS the same way King writes, in the style he calls “a found thing” in his book On Writing. Other writers call it “by the seat of your pants” writing. I started with a premise but no plot.
   Countless times I sat at the computer, when it was pitch black outside, with no idea what would happen next. I’d force myself to type something, just to get started, and then an idea would come and off I’d go, galloping up to the next roadblock. It was thrilling.
   I edited the manuscript a couple of times and thought it was ready for primetime. It weighed in at 200K words. A bit long, I know, but I’d read many King books that were twice that and I like long reads.
   Sure my book would be snapped up by an eager publisher, I dreamt of large advances, book tours, appearances on The Tonight Show, and a vacation home on Maui. Most of all, I dreamt of a full-time writing career. I’d be like Dean Koontz and buy a house overlooking the ocean, with a writing room on the third floor.
   Out went the query letters, printed in 1200 dpi on fine stationary. I got an early hit; they asked for three chapters! The rejection letter must have been in the mail the same time as the sample chapters. I thought later a new intern likely asked for the pages as the info I had on the publisher said they didn’t publish books longer than 90K words.
   I received about twenty-five rejection letters, most tenth-generation photocopies--tacky and impersonal. One publisher sent a nice letter stating he liked the concept and was interested but the manuscript needed editing. The story “told” more than it “showed.” I had no idea what he meant but by then had given up. The digital file was backed up to a USB drive and the printed manuscript was banished to a shelf in the garage.
   Never at any time have I thought CANALS wasn’t a good story. I just thought I was a lousy salesman. Which I was.
   I was sure it was the genre; few publishers and agents list an interest in horror. And check out the bestseller lists, you rarely see a horror book in the top ten.
   Four years later I decided to write another book, this time a thriller. In fact, I told myself I would stick with the genre. Instead of wanting to be Stephen King, I now wanted to be John Sandford, my favorite thriller writer.
   I’ll save the story for my writing THE MIGHTY T for another day.
   I queried for THE MIGHTY T. While waiting to hear back from agents and publishers, I thought I’d resurrect CANALS now that I thought I knew a lot more about writing. Sure it’s length was a hindrance to it being published, I edited with a heavy hand and got it down to 145K. A lot of bad bloat was cut, words and scenes that added little or nothing to the plot.
   I queried for CANALS again, even tried to reconnect with the editor who’d written the personal letter. He was no longer there and Google had no idea where he’d gone.
   With an impressive pile of paper rejections, and a few megabytes of email rejections, for both manuscripts, I was discouraged and dejected. This would’ve been late 2009. I knew little about ebooks then and nothing about self-publishing other than I’d read agents and publishers look down their noses at writers who self-publish. Why I was concerned about what people who had no interest in my work thought of me is anyone’s guess.
   Then, in February 2011, I found Smashwords and eventually Jack Konrath’s blog, which I devoured. I bought Konrath’s philosophy, as well as John Locke’s, on how to successfully self-publish. I have a two-page crib sheet from a few Locke blogs and interviews I’ll throw up some day. Very enlightening.
   I decided to publish on Smashwords and chose to publish CANALS first. It would be my practice book. Once I learned the ropes I’d publish THE MIGHTY T and yank CANALS. Remember, I’d chosen to be a genre thriller writer; I thought it would be bad for thriller readers to find a horror book with my name on it.
   Is there a point, Everett, or does this post ramble on forever?
   The version of CANALS I published in March, 2011, while far better than the version I tried to get publishers to buy, was inferior to the version that’s now for sale. The editor was right: I had way too much telling and not nearly enough showing.
   Here are my points:
1. CANALS shouldn’t have been published in March. It’s not fair to ask people to pay for something that’s not polished. I apologize to the people who paid for that version, all five of you.
2. I’m flip-flopping on the “I’m a genre writer”. I’m currently writing a second Grant Starr thriller but I have no idea if I’ll write nothing but thrillers after that. This flip-flopping has me troubled. I’m not convinced it’s good for marketing.

   Here’s my question: If you’re a writer, have you defined your “brand”? Do you think having a brand is even important? I think it makes marketing your writing a lot easier.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

After Lightfoot: Restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley

O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Valley

After the exciting conclusion of THE MIGHTY T, I wrote a brief chapter that addressed several things. One was what happened to the Hetch Hetchy Valley after the terrorist John Lightfoot successfully destroyed the O'Shaughnessy Dam. Here is a excerpt from that chapter:

There were two camps of thought concerning the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. While they differed on everything else, they had agreed on a set of eight givens.
To create a solid base for the dam, Michael O’Shaughnessy had had to excavate 118 feet below the natural riverbed. If they removed all 118 of concrete, the river gradient would be too steep and the valley would quickly erode.
So the first given was, leave enough of the dam in place to restore the original stream gradient.
Sediment accumulation behind a dam is a major problem; it displaces water and is a huge environmental mess when the dam is removed, which all dams eventually will.
The second given was, Hetch Hetchy lacked sediment. The watershed forming the Tuolumne River is mostly granite rock, cut and formed by glaciers, covered with a thin layer of soil — there was little to wash into the valley. What little sediment there might have been over the years had already washed downstream because water was released from the bottom of the dam.
The second given leads into the third: because of the lack of sediment buildup, the original river channel still exists. Restorers didn’t have to worry about dredging a new channel, which they would have had to do if the valley was full of silt.
No one knew for sure what native flora and fauna existed in the Hetch Hetchy Valley circa 1920, but — the fourth given — whatever would’ve been living in the valley had the City of San Francisco not flooded it, probably still lived in the mountains and valleys around Hetch Hetchy. It was assumed these native plants and animals would, with time, find their way back into the valley.
The fifth given was simple: it would be impossible to prevent non-native plants from taking root. Yosemite Valley had forty-five non-native types of grasses, so it was silly to think Hetch Hetchy wouldn’t also.
The sixth given was, bugs and worms will return on their own.
Seventh given: no one knew what to do about the white bathtub ring around the valley, so they would have to be content to let nature figure it out.
Eighth and final given: little creatures might need help if there were too many bigger creatures around eating them. Everyone thought it would be okay to meddle by bringing in more little creatures, or removing a few big ones.

(This information came from a 1988 National Park Service study; I wanted the book to be as accurate as possible, keeping in mind it’s a work of fiction.)

The chapter also discusses two camps of thought regarding how the restoration should be managed: one camp says, keeping in mind the above givens, give Hetch Hetchy back to nature and let her make of it what she will. Man screwed it up in the first place by flooding the valley so he should keep his soiled hands off the restoration.

The second camp wants to micromanage the restoration and is split into two subcamps; some for managing with a light hand, others with a heavy hand. Those in favor of light management think it would be okay to meddle a little by replanting fora and re-populating fawna native to the area; give nature a helping hand.

Those who favor the heavy-handed management want to control everything. They would erect greenhouses and nurseries while the valley drained, then map out where everything would be planted. Then they would micromanage the valley forever.

All sides think Hetch Hetchy would, in 150 years, look like it would have had the City of San Francisco not flooded it in 1923. Except, of course for the fifty-foot white ring around the valley where the pure water had leached minerals from the granite mountains. It can be erased only by hundreds or thousands of years of erosion.

I’m not sure I agree. In all likelihood, the Hetch Hetchy Valley would have been developed in a similar manner as its big sister, Yosemite Valley. No doubt someone would have erected a hotel or two, paved roads would’ve been laid, and tourists would’ve been motoring through the valley, dirtying up the air.

A restored and protected Hetch Hetchy, save for the bathtub ring, might be an improvement on what might have been had man not intervened.

Albert Bierstadt's painting of Hetch Hetchy Valley