Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It's All About Support

The Holidays are almost over. My next book seems to be finished, except I'm never sure when a book is done. I think it's good, but of course I do. I polish and polish and polish and there always seem to be just one or two more rough spots, where changing a word or something will magically make the sentence or concept or paragraph come alive. It's called editing.


Okay, I've got that out of my system. Today's amazing blog post comments on support. It also mentions sex. (Got your attention, didn't I?) If there is one thing an Indie author needs, it's support. In the search for ways to promote the work, we seek out others who have similar desires. If we're lucky, we find like-minded souls who will act with us as a cheering section and resource. Of course, it's mutual. As we give, so shall we receive. It's also fun.

I write thrillers. To my amazement, I find one of the most supportive groups around writes paranormal romance. You know, vampires, erotic vampires, sexy demons with huge sexual appetites. That kind of thing. I don't normally read romance books, much less paranormal romance. The Paranormal Romance Guild accepts all genres and is one of the best support groups going, with friendly members and humor. I was seeking out sites that would consider doing reviews and I stumbled onto this gold mine. You might check them out. The web address is here:

There is also the "Thriller, Mystery and Suspense" forum on Amazon. A great group to tune into, with folks like Ted Krever, Nash Black, Ian Fraser, Jenny Milchman and many others. Goodreads has many forums and groups. My favorite is The James Mason Community Book Club. Great for suspense and thriller writers, moderated by Rick, an excellent host.

I want to give a special mention to C. J. Ellisson: who goes out of her way to support others, has a nifty blog and website and gives away her stuff from time to time. Erotic, vampire books, for those who are interested. Highly explicit.

Male authors might want to read some of her books (and others by authors in the PRG) for a peek into the female mind when it comes to sex, something we men are usually not very good at. Women snort in contempt when they come across a stereotype sex scene in novels written by men. It can be a good sex scene and keep their attention, but there is usually something missing, from a woman's point of view. I gotta tell you, guys, it ain't easy to get it right. I'm still working on it. To be fair, I don't think women fully understand the male experience either.

Kind of goes with being human and the whole gender thing.

So, support each other and have a good time while you're doing it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Writers to learn from: James Lee Burke

I'm convinced you can't write well unless you read books by writers who have figured it out and learn from them. Classic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner and Wolfe and Steinbeck. Present day writers like Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, C.J. Box, Lee Child, Stephen King and Robert Crais. All very different. All highly accomplished. All able to touch something human in us that goes beyond adventure and trouble and crime and spies and bad guys and good guys and all that.

I'm a big fan of James Lee Burke. I've read all of his Dave Robicheaux novels. I just finished Feast Day of Fools, Burke's latest in a series featuring an aging, small town Texas sheriff named Hackberry Holland.

So, what's so great about Burke's writing? What can I (and maybe you) learn from reading a book about dysfunctional, psychopathic characters who consistently carry out brutal and heinous acts as a routine day's work? Why would we want to read about people like this?

Because Burke is much more than a creative writer with the required skill sets of crafted scenes, powerful dialogue and twisting plots. He's a master at revealing the human heart and the demons that reside within all of us. He's an absolute master of natural description, immersing the reader in the desert harshness of Mexico and Texas or the lush coast of Louisiana or the hard streets of New Orleans. He's a master at revealing the depths of a character in a simple paragraph, of choosing exactly the right words.

Here's an example from Feast Day of Fools. Hackberry Holland, Burke's protagonist, is watching his deputy Pam Tibbs at a crime scene.

In moments like these, when she was totally unguarded and unmindful of herself, Hackberry knew in a private place in the back of his mind that Pam Tibbs belonged to that category of exceptional women whose beauty radiated outward through their skin and had little to do with the physical attributes of their birth. In these moments he felt an undefined longing in his heart that he refused to recognize.

It paints an instant picture of Pam Tibbs. From prior parts of the book we know she's not beautiful in the conventional sense. Burke could have just said she wasn't particularly pretty, not that her beauty had little to do with the physical attributes of her birth. I think the ability to describe a character with a phrase like this is as good as it gets for a writer. To me, it borders on genius.

The paragraph reveals Hackberry. It tells us the essence of who he is. He longs for connection he cannot define. More, he refuses to acknowledge it's there. He must control his emotions or things might turn bad for him. He fears their power.

Two characters defined. All in seventy words.

Hackberry, over seventy years old, struggles with unresolved feelings about Pam, who is half his age. Along with the dangerous and evil characters Burke spreads across the pages, we find ourselves engaged with a protagonist aware he is long past his prime, taking it one day at a time, struggling with unexpressed and powerful emotions and doing the best he can to see that justice is done.

Dave Robicheaux is another character any aspiring writer can learn from. He's gentle and full of love for his wives (they get killed every now and then) and his adopted daughter, Alafair. He's full of destructive anger that comes raging out past the walls of polite manners he's built to contain it. He's from a nightmare of a dysfunctional family that was laced with love, sex and alcohol. He's driven by demons many of us might find familiar. He's a Vietnam Vet. He struggles to stay sober and sometimes he slips. He has deep integrity. He cares. He seeks and believes in social justice. He sees Confederate ghosts slipping through the mists of the Bayou.

One hell of a character. Read James Lee Burke and learn.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

If You Wrote It No One Would Believe It

Fiction writers want to create believable plots. It's called suspension of disbelief. Writing 101. Readers know the difference between plots that work and those that don't. If the plot isn't believable, they will put the book down, never to pick it up again.

Life, it's been said, is stranger than fiction. Sometimes life provides plots that are not believable.


Here's a plot line. You tell me if it is believable or not. A dysfunctional loner with immature, radical views decides to assassinate the President of the United States. He ends up high in a building in Dallas. With a $39.95 bolt action, inaccurate WWII rifle and a poorly fitted scope, he fires three quick rounds (or was it four?) and achieves his goal. The President is dead. The fatal round is miraculously found (after an improbable ballistic journey) in pristine condition on the gurney bearing the President to the hospital. Tests prove it came from the assassin's rifle. Shortly thereafter, the assassin himself is killed while in police custody.

Films and eyewitness accounts raise many questions, quickly dismissed. A special government commission finds that the assassin acted alone. The records are sealed. Over the next two years a long list of people in some way connected to the assassination are found dead. Suicide. Accident. Heart attack. Disease. Murder. Drug overdose. No one is left to question. Other high profile troublemakers are assassinated, changing the face of American politics. Lone assassins are identified, once again.

If you wrote that, would you believe it? A better question is if you wrote that how would you bring the plot to resolution? What would be revealed?

Pictures of trucks parked in the desert are presented to a world body as proof of Weapons of Mass Destruction (capital letters are intentional) by a man fully respected and, it turns out, misinformed. Some might even say, a patsy. An unprovoked war begins, with ongoing disastrous consequences for everyone except some people who become very, very wealthy. How would you write that one? Probably a bad example, since it is way too believable.

How about this one? A man from a foreign country which is not our friend plots to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US. He decides to use the Mexican Mob to help him do the job. He jaunts off to Mexico. He hires a hit man who will help him. Oops! The hit man turns out to be an informant for the DEA. A sting provides lots and lots of incriminating evidence. Sabers start rattling, once again.

What are the odds of picking exactly the wrong guy out of all the possible choices? If you wrote that, would you believe it? I write thrillers. If I wrote that, I'd be ashamed of myself. I can think of at least a dozen better ways to pull it off, especially with the backing of a hostile government and its resources. If I wrote it, the target would be toast. It would be believable.

Want some more plot ideas? The economy goes down in flames. Massive amounts of money are needed to avoid disaster. Okay, that's believable. But no one is held to account. The same people responsible for the meltdown guard the financial henhouse and "advise" the President on the economy. The economy continues to burn.

That's a lousy plot. If you wrote that, would you believe it?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blog Blah Blues

I counted them yesterday. There were 4,357,987.36 blogs circulating on the net. Took me all day.

Naaahh. I made that up. There are more than that.

I don't know about you, but after a half hour or so pursuing these little gems across the ether my eyes start to cross. There are good blogs, bad blogs, pretty blogs, ugly blogs, dumb blogs, super smart blogs. Perhaps you have a blog. Perhaps you have thought to yourself, "Good grief! It's time for another post. WHAT am I going to write about that is interesting to anyone but myself?"

I started this blog partly from self interest (I want folks like you to buy my books) and partly from a desire to help all us independent writers polish our craft.

Okay, so far so good. Write about writing. Okay. Let's see...I could write about editing (yawn). I could write about sentence structure and plot (double yawn, triple yawn).  Kind of boring. In fact, really boring. In terms of writing a blog about writing, I'd just hit a stone wall. Thus, the title of today's post. Thus, the question: WHAT am I going to write about?

Well, good question. I asked my wife, Gayle. In the best tradition of psychotherapy (and wives), she responded to my question with one of her own: "What do you like to write about?"

I thought about it. An obvious question (it wasn't to me). The answer appeared from the mysterious alternate reality where the inspirational muse hangs out. Here's what she (the muse) told me: Write about the authors you love and why you think they're so good at what they do.

Stephen King says if you don't have time to read, you can't be a good writer. Something like that. He's right. We have to read. We love to read. If we didn't love to read, why would we want to write? You can't write unless you love it. It's too much work.


I think reading the best authors is the best way to learn how to write well. Not to copy the style. God forbid. But to absorb the sense of how something so good comes together. What makes a book memorable, for good or ill? Why do we have favorite authors and authors we hate? What can we learn from their work to improve our own, just by reading them and then thinking about what we've read?

I like thrillers and mysteries. I like thoughtful books. I like books with deeply drawn relationships, inner and outer. I like action books. I like accurate books. I like authors like Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker and Shakespeare. I like Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Herman Hesse and John Steinbeck. I like Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Larry Block, Nelson DeMille, Robert Crais, Stephen Hunter, Stephen King, Lee Child and Diana Gabaldon. Not to mention the new voices of the self publishing revolution.

I'm going to blog about how reading my favorite authors has helped my writing. I think I'll start with Michael Connelly next time.

By the way, who are your favorite authors? Why? Let me know. Maybe I'll learn something.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Human Spirit

Today I want to write about a truly inspiring video that restores my faith in humanity. It reminds me that most people, really, are pretty decent at heart. It's a few years old, but in terms of the human spirit, it's timeless.

Jason McElwain is an autistic student at a high school in Rochester, New York. Jason is "highly functional", meaning that unlike many autistic kids he is able to go to school, interact with others, and do a lot of the things we non-autistic people take for granted. For Jason, you can bet that's a real challenge. Jason is a senior in high school. He was a student assistant member of the basketball team, helping out at practices, games, stuff like that. He had never played. Then one night his coach let him suit up. The game was down to the last five minutes. Remember, Jason had never played in an actual game. Coach Jim Johnson sent him in.

Your first clue is the cheers from the crowd when he goes in. But wait a sec...don't we all know that high school kids are intolerant, bullying, self absorbed, etc. etc.? Isn't that what we see on the news or in the papers all the time? Examples of bad behavior with various pundits shaking their heads about the dissolution of values and our society?

So Jason goes in and the crowd cheers and the coach is just praying that maybe Jason will get a basket. Just one. Jason misses his first shot by a mile. For him to even get a shot means his teammates had supported him. A minute after missing that shot, Jason makes a three pointer. The crowd goes wild. By the end of the game, Jason made not one, not two, but SIX three pointers. School record.

Ever shoot hoops? Three pointers ain't easy.

If you want to skip right to it, here's the link: Http://

Folks, it's not all bad out there. Sometimes we just need to be reminded.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sex, Sex, More Sex and the Reader

You're hooked into reading this, aren't you? Few things are more fascinating than sex. Movies are full of it. Television is full of it. Books are full of it. Even the Bible is full of it.

So what has this got to do with writing? Everything, that's what. Even if you are writing a novel about a convent in the fifteenth century, sex will come up sooner or later. Especially if you are writing a novel about a convent in the fifteenth century. And for every character there is an unspoken or clearly obvious sexual point of view.

Explicit sexual scenes that would once have been considered pornographic are now commonplace in popular literature. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries. Writers like Jonathan Kellerman and James Lee Burke are masters at creating steaming sexual scenes that reveal the inner depths of a character.  

That's the key. Sexual scenes reveal, they're not there just to titillate the reader. If a sexual encounter doesn't deepen identification with your characters (it does usually take at least two), it doesn't belong in your story.

Okay, you've created the scene and it's the right place in the plot for it to happen. Good. Have you thought about the reader's point of view? If you are a man writing about sex, how do you think about it? If you want any loyal readers of the female persuasion, you'd better come up (pun intended) with something more than the typical masculine thinking about sex. Because, guys, (drum roll) women don't think about sex the way we do.

I refer you to any book by Diana Gabaldon, who has only sold about umpteen million copies of her fabulous Outlander series. Sex is one of the reasons, but not the only one. She took the classic historical bodice ripper into the stratosphere and blew away half a dozen genre barriers in the process. You want a female point of view about sex, study her work. She is pretty good at capturing the male viewpoint as well. Her sex scenes rock.

As a male writer, you can get away with only the male point of view, because everyone likes sex. But getting your reader to identify with the character while he/she is in the act is a different story. Can you engage your female readers in that way, if you have any? It ain't easy. The same is true for women who write, in reverse. Many sex scenes written by women tend to leave male readers yawning, if they somehow find themselves reading any book by a woman. Because (drum roll again) men don't think about sex the way women do.

Okay, so you all knew that. But maybe you forgot when you were writing that scene. Writing sexual scenes that feel authentic to both male and female readers requires understanding the difference in the way men and woman think about sex. As for me, I'm still working on it.

I challenge you to write a sexual scene from the feeling/physical/emotional point of view of each character. Run it by readers from both genders for an honest opinion. Prepare to be surprised.

Let me know how it works out.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Writing is a perilous journey. What can you write about that hasn't already been said by someone else, more succinctly. By the way, isn't that a cool word, "succinctly"? I don't get to use it much. There's a reason for that.

Words are like fine liquor or the curl of a big wave or the breeze in the evergreens or snow falling on cedars  (see what I mean about things having been said?). Or words can be like a four dollar bottle of Vodka, a stagnant pond, a whiff from the dump or the draught in Texas. Words like succinctly, a dreaded adverb, conjure up all sorts of images.

"Now he won't bother you anymore," she said succinctly, dropping the still smoking gun into her handbag.

What kind of woman is this? Probably someone from a pulp fiction novel, but you get my drift. Any editor would gag at a line like that. "Sweetly" would be better, but it's still an adverb. Got to watch out for those little suckers.

Then there are adjectives, endless lines of them. Every struggling writer seeks the right one, the only one that will convey just the right feeling and tone.

Fageddabout it.

Write what you want. You can change it later, if you must. Making something more complex or descriptive may not be the answer.

How about "said" for attribution? Everywhere, aspiring writers are sternly warned to avoid this dreaded word, as in "he said" or if you like, "she said succinctly."

Have you read anything by Lee Child lately? He only happens to be one of the very best around, selling millions of books, as well he should. They are damn good. You might notice that "Reacher said" is a common phrase in his books. Didn't seem to hurt him any.

It's true I was blessed by an excellent education and strength in the English language. That has made it easier to be a writer. It didn't help much when it came to editing, though. That is a whole different animal, as they say on the airline with the wolf on its tail. If you don't have an editor, editing is something you have to learn the hard way. Most Indie writers don't have one, a reason many Indie books fail to reach the writer's potential.

I recommend Stephen King's memoir On Writing to everyone for openers. I also recommend that you don't burn yourself out on all those books and courses telling you how to write the Great American Novel or short story. There's only so much of that you can absorb, much less put to use. I don't believe Hemingway or Thomas Wolfe or Steinbeck took a lot of writing courses or read a lot of books on how to write, but I might be mistaken.

If you are serious about writing I refer you to the Nike philosophy: Just Do It.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Independent Writer: Part Two

This is a new blog, with only a few posts as yet. So, in order not to confuse the hundreds of thousands of followers sure to come I've changed the name of the blog before that happens. That way only a few of you will be confused. What? You didn't notice?

I'm not going to blog just about writing. That would get boring. But today I'm going to follow up on the last post, where I mentioned the dreaded "R" word, revision. Then I'll move on, I promise.

For me there are two parts to revision. The first part is revision of the draft. That's where you go back through everything, fix plot glitches, make sure all the characters are consistent, make sure chapter numbers are consistent, etc. etc. For me that's an ongoing process as I write. Each time I sit down at the computer I revise what I wrote the day before. That brings me back into the stream. It makes it easy to pick up the thread. Many writers don't do that, but it works for me. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about a line or a scene or a new plot twist or improvement. I put that in before I get on to the new bits.

A rule of thumb I picked up somewhere is second draft equals first draft minus ten percent. You have 80,000 wonderful words? Toss out 8000 of them (I feel your pain). As Stephen King says, "kill your darlings." His memoir On Writing should be every writer's companion. It's a true gem, full of things writers need to know, as well as a fascinating personal story.

Okay, you did that. The second part of revision (again, it's ongoing) is editing. Unless you are lucky enough to have a good, professional editor, you have to learn to do it yourself. Since Indie writers are self-published, it's essential to figure it out. Study books you like and learn from them. Unnecessary adjectives, almost all adverbs, long obscure sentences, unclear attribution, punctuation mistakes-they all have to go. Organizing and developing the characters' thoughts in a clear cohesive manner. Description that conveys sense and feeling. Smooth transitions from scene to scene and chapter to chapter. Believable dialogue. Knowing when to end a chapter, when to begin one, the sequence of the chapters (not always what you thought). That's some of it. I'm still learning, which I expect will continue until I fall over onto my keyboard and shuffle off this mortal coil with just one more revision in mind.

Oh, good. It's revised. Now print it out. Oh, oh. It looks different on the printed page. Revise and edit.

Then, after you've done all that, do it again. And again. And again. At some point you will realize you've done all you can. That's when you put it away for a month, take it out and do it again.

Still want to be a writer? I hope so.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Independent Writer

Are you a writer? Frustrated with the agent/publisher quest, the endless advice about query letters and all that? Become an indie writer. You won't get an advance, but it gives you a shot. After all, that's what you want--a fair shot. Even if you got that bricks and mortar contract, you'd still have to do the things indie writers do to sell their books. I know, because I've done it both ways. Now I'm an indie writer. I write thrillers.

The good of indie publishing is that writers have control over the entire process, start to finish. The bad is that the learning curve is steep to get a professional result. The ugly is that many indie books aren't very good. It's easy to tell, though. Most of the time when a book appears you have some kind of "look inside" feature. That allows you to decide if it's a buy or good material for the landfill. Agents and editors can tell at a glance if a book is any good. Or maybe not.

Having an agent doesn't guarantee publication. I had an agent for White Jade and a pass through from a senior editor at a major company called (REDACTED) who liked the book. He turned it down because I wasn't former CIA or NSA. No credibility. Tell that to Steve Berry, who as far as I know is a lawyer, not a scret agent. Of course I couldn't tell the editor the truth because then I would have had to kill him. And anyway, White Jade isn't about spies. It's about problem solvers. Solving problems sometimes leads to noisy explosions and vicious firefights, but hey, problems need solutions.

Everybody has advice for independent writers. It's big business, with hundreds of ebooks being promoted that tell you how to promote ebooks.  

From time to time I'll post something here that might help if you are one of those folks who just has to write. By now I've figured some of it out. So here's the first tip:


And when you've done that, put it away for a month. Reread it. Revise again. It helps to remember what the Dalai Lama said: "Never give up. No matter what, never give up."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

An American Story

     Sometimes you come across something that makes you feel good about how diverse and culturally rich our country really is. Something that gives a different picture of life in America than you are liable to see on the evening news. How about a fifteen year old black kid from Oakland who sings Chinese opera in perfect Mandarin? His name is Tyler Thompson. He doesn't speak more than basic Chinese, but he's doggone good when it comes to singing it in the incredibly difficult world of Chinese opera.
    China plays a big part in White Jade, one of my thrillers. But the real deal is in real life. I learned about Tyler from an AP article by Terence Shea that appeared in July of this year. Tyler studies in Sherlyn Chew's Purple Silk Music Education Program, which teaches Chinese music to the children of mostly low income, immigrant families. Tyler blew them away in China when Chinese Central Television broadcast his show from San Jose. Tyler says: "The music is very beautiful and it's very passionate. You can hear it when it's being played." If you have ever seen a Chinese opera, you know he's right. Art transcends language, customs and the idiocy of governments. Culture is a universal, human gift we give to each other. All we have to do is open our eyes and our hearts and let it in.