Saturday, November 3, 2012

New Website Is Up!

The new website is up and running. Please take a look at by Rae Monet. She did a fantastic job integrating the branded look of the book covers by Neil Jackson into the new site. You can't go wrong with either of these folks. Professional, friendly, helpful, creative--what more can you ask?

Now all I need is about a million people or so to check the site out...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Time for a change, as the Mayans might say. In the past this blog has been about writing. Tips, thoughts, hints, a few personal stories (not many) and perhaps a different take on the kind of advice to writers that fills the blogosphere for anyone who cares to look.

I'm not going to do that, anymore. There is more information out there about writing than any of us could possibly absorb or remember.


I am about to launch a new website. It's in early stages of design, but should be up within a few weeks at most. The old .org address will automatically roll over to the new site once it's done. The blog will be easy to find, linked from the site and still at the same address here on blogger. But it will be different.

All of my books document the missions of The Project, a small, dedicated black ops team of men and women who work only for the President. The Project is run by Elizabeth Harker. Her job is to stop America's enemies before they can accomplish their destructive goals. The Project is good at it, though it isn't easy work.

In the future you will be able to read the confidential dossiers of the Project team members. There may be an occasional interview, although the covert nature of their work and security requirements necessarily limits what can be said. There will be ongoing updates on mission progress as new stories are declassified.

Set for declassification in December of 2012 is the next mission file: THE TESLA SECRET.

I love to hear from readers and will always respond to emails. My email address is:

Please stay tuned for further updates.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Sometimes I think there is a container filled with words somewhere in the back of my mind. Not only words, but a kind of fluid energy that makes its way through the mystery of consciousness to movements of fingers on keyboard and brings those words into form. Manifestation of something from nothing.

In a perfect world that reservoir would be dedicated to just one task: writing. It's not a perfect world, as you may have noticed. The same reservoir is used to comprehend words, write words in emails, participate in forums and so on. Research, reading, anything written. Communication in language.

Including SELF-PROMOTION, the dreaded demon that sits waiting to pounce on all writers except those who have already sold millions of books.

Which brings me to the heart of today's post: Balance.

How do you strike a balance in time and energy between getting the writing done and doing the promotional things to make your writing a commercial success? By commercial, I mean sell enough books to make a reasonable living doing it.

Everyone has a different definition of "reasonable living". It probably revolves around a dollar figure that allows you to take care of all your obligations, provide a sense of future security and leave enough left over for that trip to Hawaii or whatever without breaking the bank.

To reach that goal as a writer, you have to sell lot of books. Selling a lot of books requires self-promotion. Earning a living as a writer may not be important to you. If that's the case, God bless you, but you still need to promote yourself if you want anyone except friends and family to read your work.

Discipline is essential. If you don't apply discipline and organization, you will drain the reservoir. You will lose the balance. Life will become dreary. That is not a good thing. Here are a few suggestions to maintain. They aren't written in stone and may go out the window during a big promotion. Something like a 3 day deal on Kindle Select, or planning new book covers, or getting a book trailer together.

For what it's worth, here's what works for me. It's partly practical, partly my particular philosophy about writing. Alas, I sometimes fail to follow my own advice. That always has consequences, in terms of energy and focus.

  • Don't fall into the trap of checking email more than a few times a day
  • Keep a notebook of who you've contacted, what you've planned
  • Write at least five days a week
  • Write at least 1000 words each day
  • Take frequent breaks from the computer
  • Set a time each day to write
  • Promote yourself when you are done writing, not before
  • Keep track of ideas for your book and for your promotions: a whiteboard is good
  • Focus with high intensity on promotion when there are specific events like the KDP 3 day promos: these require intensive planning for success, sometimes months in advance
  • Be friendly in the various groups, forums and networks you follow.
  • Look for opportunities to support other writers. Not because you think it's a good idea to help sell your books but because you really do want to support them.
  • Don't get hooked into hours of "liking" pages and "tagging" books. That can really suck up your time and energy. Do it when you feel like it, when it's convenient, and because you actually like someone's book/work.

In General:

  • Keep writing.
  • Take a break when you are done with the draft.
  • And when you're done editing.
  • And when you are done revising.
  • Revise again
  • Find Beta readers, but trust your judgement
  • Don't dilute the reservoir with self-doubt
  • Hold yourself to the highest standard you are capable of
  • Keep learning
  • Read a lot and improve your understanding of the craft

Easy, right?

In the future, I'm going to try some different things here. Maybe interviews with my characters. Maybe flash fiction. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

100 Shades of Blue and Gray

Today I'm privileged to have as my guest an as yet undiscovered author, Leia Davenport, who has a work in progress titled "100 Shades of Blue and Gray". Leia received a seven figure advance for the work, so I'm very excited to learn more about it.

Me: Welcome, Leia. Thanks so much for joining me today.

LD: My pleasure. It's wonderful to have a chance to talk about my new book.

Me: Tell us a bit about yourself.

LD: Oh, there's not much to tell, really. I'm a housewife with three kids. (Laughs). I live in Charleston.

Me: Charlestown? Boston?

LD: No, silly, Charleston. You know, South Carolina? Fort Sumter?

Me: Oh, right. Isn't your book set during the Civil War?

LD: Well, my heroine, Melody Anne, doesn't call it that. She lives in Atlanta and she calls it the War Between the States. Yes, it's a historical romance that begins in 1861 and ends...well I haven't got to the ending yet, But I might take my characters through the entire war. Maybe a series, three or four books.

Me: That's ambitious.

LD: Oh, it really isn't. I mean it will only take me a month or so to write the first one and I expect the others will go just as quickly.

Me: How can you turn out a book so quickly?

LD: Well, you know, all that editing and revision stuff, it just seems so...unnecessary. I mean, it's a story. Stories don't need a lot of editing. I just use my spell checker and that's good enough.

Me: That's certainly one way to do it. Would you share something from the book?

LD: I'm so glad you asked me that. I brought along a few paragraphs. I was hoping you might include them as a kind of sneak preview.

Me: Would you like to read them to me?

(We paused while Ms. Davenport opened her portmanteau and pulled out a sheet of paper.)

LD: "Oh Rhett," Melody Anne exclaimed meaningfully, "this terrible war. I don't know what I'm going to do while you go off to fight those damned Yankees. Whatever will I do?"

Me (Interrupting): Wait a sec. Wasn't Rhett the name of one of the characters in Gone With The Wind?

LD: Well, I don't see what difference that makes. I mean it's a good, strong male name and readers will already think of the South when they hear it. You know? And Rhett is VERY strong, well endowed, with stamina, if you get my meaning.

Me: Sorry, please go on.

LD: Where was I...oh, yes. Rhett looked meaningfully at her. He was dark and handsome in his gray officer's uniform with the curly gold stripes on the sleeves. His eyes were blue and hard, as hard as the sword hanging by his side, as hard as the marbles in the fish bowl. He was a hard man, indifferent to her concerns. But his indifference didn't make any difference. He had ignited a fire within her and only he could quench it. The muscles under his shirt moved seductively. Melody Anne felt herself getting hot and wet.
"Oh Rhett," she said meaningfully.
He came close, took her in his muscular arms. The strong, male scent of him almost made her swoon.
"I must have you. Before I go off to die." He took her hand and placed it on his swollen organ.
"Oh Rhett," she exclaimed.
He kissed her, a hard, indifferent kiss. He threw her down on the daybed and ripped her bodice open.
"Oh, Rhett," she cried meaningfully, fumbling at the wide leather belt around his waist. "No, no, we mustn't."
"Yes, we must."
His trousers fell around his knees. His sword clanked on the old yellow pine floor put in by her daddy when he'd first built the plantation house years ago right after he'd emigrated from Ireland to this gentle land of peach blossoms and happy people and become a successful gentleman before Momma died of the fever and little sister Harmony was called to the angels before those damned Yankees and that ugly Mister Lincoln got set to ruin everything.
"Damn these petticoats," Rhett exclaimed passionately with passion.

LD: Well? What do you think?

Me: I'm in awe. You seem to have captured something definitive. It's hard to put a name to it...

LD: Well, that's what I was trying to do.

Me: Thanks for coming today, Leia. Perhaps we can do it again and you can share some more of your book with us.

LD: Well, I'd love that. Thanks for having me.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Readers and Writers

A writer's job is to tell stories, to capture some piece of human experience with words and do it in such a way that other people want to read it. Really good stories open our minds to a deeper understanding of our common humanity. Really bad stories are so bad they make us want to cringe, even if they sell fifty million copies, which just proves that humans are about as diverse a bunch as you can find anywhere in the universe.

WARNING: Cliché Alert
Everybody has a story.

Ants don't tell stories. It's a human thing. The essence of storytelling is its humanness. Somehow a successful story taps into the reader's story. Since a writer doesn't know the reader's story, the challenge is to write something that strikes a chord with the reader, something that taps into the reader's real or imagined or possible human experience. Marketing and demographics try to pin down the reader's story, but that's not what I mean.

I have read many thousands of stories, books and poems. They ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, in every genre, from the earliest epics to the latest wave of eBooks. I've gotten really picky about what I like. I am no longer engaged simply by plot and setting, although a good plot is essential and the right setting helps the book come alive in my mind. What engages me is something which resonates inside and puts me in the characters' world, a world different from the one I'm used to. I'm not a cop, but I love characters like Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's very human detective. I'm not a semi-literate criminal but I love stories by Elmore Leonard, who brings his characters to life with brilliant dialogue that makes me feel like I'm a fly on the wall in the motel room listening to these morons plan a heist.

Thrillers? Come with our heroes into dark and dangerous places, confront ruthless and terrible enemies, overcome life-threatening challenges, dodge flying bullets and against all odds make the world a temporarily less dangerous place.

Romance? Be transported into the arms of the ultimate lover, travel to distant and exotic places where you find hot love with someone who satisfies and exceeds your inner fantasies.

Mystery? Follow the puzzling clues, put it all together, escape danger (kind of like thrillers) and engage with dark and psychotic people you probably never want to meet in your real life.

Sci-Fi? Explore the dangerous and unknown universe where anything can and possibly does exist.

History? Ride with Stonewall Jackson and General Lee through days filled with senseless death over the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.

The reader doesn't have to be similar to the characters. One reason people read is to become someone else. I write thrillers, but most of my readers don't carry a gun. They're not familiar with high-tech explosives. They don't jump out of helicopters armed to the teeth or find themselves trapped in an ancient crypt filled with bones while bad guys try to kill them. The folks who read my books may never do any of those things in real life, but through the magic of words they can. A manual of how to jump out of an airplane at 22,000 feet won't do it, but a story that successfully makes the reader feel the experience as the character jumps into danger certainly will.

A scene like that would include the feelings and thoughts of the character, the sound and feel and look of the aircraft, the kind of weather, air, temperature, time of day, the feeling of the air rushing by, the snap of the chute opening, the hard contact with the ground, the way everything smells, the way the harness grabs you in the groin, the smell of everything and more, all done in a few sentences or paragraphs.

Good writers allow the reader to enter the character's world so completely that it comes alive in that reader's mind. Good writers make the reader forget it's a book. Good writers make the reader want to keep turning pages.

Want a challenge? Become a writer.

Friday, June 15, 2012

KDP Select: The Road to Exposure

By now everyone in the Indie publishing world has formed an opinion about KDP Select, Amazon's program to promote ebooks on an exclusive basis. Arguments rage, pro and con. You can't have your ebook on any other platform. Should you give those exclusive rights away?

The short answer is yes, unless you are selling a bunch of books on B&N, Kobo, Sony, Apple, etc. etc., or on your own author website (you can't do that in the KDP program). So the short answer is absolutely dependent on what kind of success you are having elsewhere.

The program only applies to ebooks, not paper editions. For me, it was a no-brainer. I had my digital books on those other sites. Sales were flatter than a three day old birthday balloon. Wasn't doing a whole lot on Amazon, either. I write action adventure thrillers. That means I'm competing with superstars like Steve Berry or Lee Child or Clive Cussler. I'm not well known, yet. How was I going to gain exposure to the potentially millions of readers of my books?

The main argument against KDP Select seems to be the exclusivity clause. Hey, folks, it's only for 90 days at a time. You can always take any book out of the program. There isn't any long term obligation. What you get in return for enrollment is the attention of Amazon's mighty marketing machine.

Warning: Opinion Alert

Amazon is the major leagues of ebook marketing and exposure. Why play for an AA or AAA team if you can step into the majors?

A successful free promotion does a couple of things. It gains you X number of readers. It punches you into the "popularity" list in your genre. You could be #1 in free, #20 in the sub set of action/adventure or whatever, and still be nowhere near the top 100 paid, the golden hill we all want to scale. Top 100 paid means you are selling mucho copies. You get there, you're thinking about that new Mercedes. In the meantime you can get your book somewhere on that top 100 popularity list for your genre. White Jade is currently #20 on the Action/Adventure list on Kindle devices, #68 on the PC. I haven't a clue why it's different. Possibly it depends on where a reader buys the book. It can stay on the list for weeks and readers see it. Those popularity lists are driven by the number of free downloads.

I got more than 10,000 downloads when I promoted White Jade. That stimulated sales of the other books in the series. Enough to pay the light bill, not enough for the Mercedes. That's okay. Patience is everything. I'm happy to see royalties waiting. I'm happy to see any royalties at all. And I'm really happy knowing all those potential readers have my book waiting on their Kindles. Eventually they'll get to it and when they read it, many of them will want to buy the other books in the series. I can already see that happening.

Thank you, everyone who picked up White Jade.

A great feature of KDP Select is the tracking. You can see sales numbers by the hour, day, month, year. You have an exact record of royalties, updated regularly. Amazon pays directly to your account. You can see how many loaners there are and you get a royalty for those. Distribution cost, deducted from royalties, is only $0.15 per 1 Megabyte. You get 70% royalty on a book for $2.99 or more.

You have a behemoth marketing and distribution machine working for you, but you still have to self promote. You need good reviews, a 4+ star rating. You need to list your promotion on sites like Pixel of Ink, along with all of the usual social media stuff you might be doing. If you can tell me a better way to reach 10,000 plus readers in three days with no advertising budget, I'd love to know.

Amazon is in business to make a lot of money. They're willing to help self published writers succeed. If you're looking for a way to get the attention of readers who never heard of you, KDP Select is a good program.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Visit This Site

Today's post was inadvertently set up on two sites. I'd like everyone to visit Tony-Paul Vissage's excellent site to see my guest post for him. It's been one of those mornings when :a )Microsoft decided my copy of Windows was invalid (it was genuine) b.) my .pdf creator went south c.) The sprinkler timer decided to go south d.) my browser thought it would be fun to post the same thing 8 times on Facebook. e.) blogger decided Explorer wouldn't work with it anymore.

Tony-Paul Vissage has created a beautiful site. You'll like it, trust me. Wish I could design like that...

Please visit Tony-Paul at

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Stages of Revision

This just in from the Department of Redundancy Department, Division for Provision of Revision. I thought I'd share this for all of you who have reached the stage of finishing the draft of your next book. Perhaps it will help...

The Stages of Revision

Stage One: Optimism:

This won't take long, the book's done. Hooray!
  • spell check, that was easy
  • looks nice
  • format
  • print

Stage Two: Initial Edit

Follow Stephen King's advice. Ferret out passive voice. Fewer adverbs. "Kill your darlings".
  • assessment
  • rearrange
  • note ideas with red pen
  • cross out things with red pen.
  • discover serious continuity issues
  • discover you used the same word two hundred and ninety-seven times
  • cross out more things with red pen
  • doubts creep in

Stage Three: Despair

Why did I begin this in the first place?
  • this book sucks
  • why would anyone care what happens to that character?
  • it's a thriller; it's full of people getting killed, why does this depress me?
  • what was I thinking of?
  • why would anyone think this could actually happen?

Stage Four: Salvage

It's not the Titanic.
  • add more sex
  • edit again
  • drink more coffee
  • add whiskey to coffee
  • edit again
  • drink whiskey without coffee
  • turn off computer

Stage Five: "Final" revision

  • I can't look at this anymore
  • take out some of what I just added
  • put some of it back
  • I really can't look at this again
  • consider Beta readers

Stage Six: Beta

  • convert format to send to readers
  • catch a mistake, edit, reformat
  • email to readers with caveats
  • consider becoming a janitor, dentist or Life Coach
  • wait for comments

Stage Seven: Acceptance

  • readers point out glaring errors and Freudian slips
  • incorporate good suggestions
  • notice annoyance at picky picky comments
  • final edit, more coffee.
  • more whiskey
  • the inner editor quits
  • final format
  • make mistakes in formatting, reformat
  • submit

Stage Eight: Optimism: Plan next book

Sunday, March 25, 2012

To Plot Or Not

I confess, I'm a non-plotter. I don't plot, not really. When I begin a book I have an overall theme in mind and that's about it. I start off with a scene, maybe a murder (murder is always popular) and that triggers the next scene and so on. I have only a broad idea of the story, which writes itself around the theme as I go along. The characters have to step out of my unconscious and take the story where it needs to go. I know there will be major events along the way, but I don't know what they will be. I know the ending, in the general sense that the good guys will probably win. They may, however, win in ways not expected. The victory may be pyrrhic. But I don't know that when I begin.

There are writers who plot everything, an approach often recommended in books and articles about writing. These folks outline and develop the entire story in detail. They follow their outline and know what's going to happen before they put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

Both approaches work. Both have positive and negative aspects. Both will succeed or fail based on all the indefinable skills that make up the creative process.

I tried to be a detailed plotter. It bored the hell out of me and I could never stick to it. It felt confining, artificial. I wish I could do it that way. It would make things a lot simpler.

As a non-plotter, I sometimes get in trouble. The thrillers I write demand accuracy in detail and a relentless logic to events. Things have to happen for a reason, not because a nice big explosion might be exciting. The more complicated the story, the more traps I can fall into. Because I write a series, it is inevitable that things will get more complicated. I've reached a point with the PROJECT series where I am challenged to give the reader more.

I am comfortable with the sense of when to end a chapter and how to do it. I trust my feel for the pacing of a story, so that is not a problem for me. I know when things are too slow or too fast, though that might not be apparent until revision. Since I revise as I go along, I usually catch it early.

But...I might be 20,000 words in and realize something is missing in the logical reasoning behind events. That will almost always have to do with hidden motivation that must be revealed as the story moves along. If someone is secretly watching my characters, why are they doing it? Maybe I didn't think that through enough before I stuck it in there, but now it's embedded and I must do something about it.

Being a non-plotter can come back and bite you. These days I'm working on the fourth book in the PROJECT series. I like to move my characters all over the world. It's fun for me and fun for the readers. They get to travel to places they would probably never visit, much less places where people were doing their best to kill them. I realized yesterday that I had moved my protagonists to a key place in the story far too easily. Now I have to fix it, which is moderately difficult. That happened because I did not have a detailed story line worked out. Easy moves the story, but it's a cheap shot at a reader. Readers invest time and money and deserve better.


Deus Ex Machina worked for Sophocles
but it won't work for you.

So where does the confession part come in? I confess, I do a sort of plotting as I go along. I start with eight or ten bullet points, ideas for the story. These may or may not end up in the book. I have a big whiteboard on the wall of my office, my primary tool to keep things straight as the story develops. I constantly put things on it, ideas, questions, possibilities. I list the names of new characters and their role, e.g., part of the Russian Security Services. If there's a hole in the logic, it will end up there until it's plugged. As I incorporate or discard those ideas, I erase them. The board is always full.

I love the freedom of not knowing how things will work out. If I can surprise myself, then I should surprise my readers. I love it when a new character appears from nowhere, driven by the logic of the story, someone I've never thought of until that moment. The real enjoyment for me of the hard work of writing comes in those moments.

It is also satisfying when the day comes that I erase that entire whiteboard and start over with the next book.

I can tear my hair out over a glaring hole in the logical development of my non-plotted story, but that becomes another opportunity to improve my writing. I wouldn't have it any other way. If you want a challenge, you might try writing from the seat of your pants. What British writers call a "pantser". It's not for everybody.

What kind of plotter are you?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why Write A Series?

You've probably heard all the conventional wisdom about why you might want to write a series. How you need more than one book out there. How someone who buys one book and likes it will want to read the others. In my opinion those are not the best reasons to write a series.

I write a series is because it's fun and it's challenging. I like my characters. I want to see what is going to happen to them. I don't know what's going to happen to them until I write the next chapter in their lives. If you are fond of the people you have created, you might like the challenge of a series.

A series is a lot of work. After the first book you must carry things forward in a consistent and developmental pattern. You must remember the details. You can't change things. Your characters must be alive in your mind as real people, with real histories and real interactions. All that personal history moves forward in each book. As the series progresses, your characters change in ways difficult to show in a single book. You must deal with issues seeded by the past events of the earlier books. That's the fun part. It's also the challenging part. A series gives you a wonderful platform to hone your skills as a writer.

The mechanics of writing a series is part of that skill development. It's a major hurdle. How do you create a later book in the series and still have it stand on its own, so a reader can pick it up and fall comfortably into the story without knowing what happened in the books before? How do you put in just enough back story to support the current effort? There are no guidelines. There is no handy manual to follow.

I'm not saying I've mastered the skill, no indeed. At the moment I am a quarter of the way through writing the fourth book in the PROJECT series and it's getting complicated. My protagonists now have a lot of history together and it affects everything--plot, dialogue, description--you name it. It gets even more complicated because I am the kind of writer who has only a broad idea of the details of the book when I begin. An opening scene, a theme, something exciting in the middle, the good guys probably win at the end.

Digression: Check out
A great guest post on plotting by Debby Harris that I wish I had written...

There are plenty of excellent series writers out there to learn from. J.K. Rowling comes to mind. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. McCall Smith's The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Lee Child's Reacher books. Robert Crais' Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer series and the Harry Bosch books. Any of these writers can teach you a lot.

Reasons to write a series:

  • You have a set of characters you know and are familiar with to build on
  • You don't have to start completely anew
  • You have a built in story thread because of the prior interactions
  • You develop more skill in characterization
  • You develop organizational writing skills

Reasons you may not want to write a series:

  • You are faced with keeping readers interested in those same characters over time
  • You must have your characters change in ways consistent with all that has gone before
  • You must work with the inner psychology of your characters in ways somewhat different from a one-off story
  • Your organizational skills will be challenged
  • You are forced to dig ever deeper for originality and freshness of plot, motivation and setting

I can think of several well-known series writers (here unnamed) whose books I no longer purchase. Those writers got lazy in their success. Their books became boring and careless. They failed to maintain that freshness and originality mentioned above.

Writing a series is not for everybody, but if you love your characters you might consider it. Don't you want to know what's going to happen to them over time? Only a series gives you that freedom. Go for it, if you want a different kind of writing challenge...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Realism and Description

I received a wonderful comment this morning from a reader about my newest book, The Seventh Pillar (you can check it out by clicking on the cover picture to your left). Part of the book is set in the desert wastelands of the Western Sahara. I try to make the settings and details of my books accurate and real enough so the reader can picture him/herself right there, in this case with sand and heartless rock under their feet and heat beating down from a sky as intense and vivid as my imagination and experience can make it.

The reader had not been to the part of the desert I used in the book, but she had spent time in Saudi Arabia and she felt like she was there, with my characters, under that relentless sun and endless sky. Her comment made my day because it meant that I had succeeded in what I had tried to do, make the reader FEEL like she was THERE, where it counts.

Realism. Description. The challenge we face as writers to transport our readers to the worlds of our imagination, wherever and whatever they may be. It is unlikely my reader will ever find herself in a place where very bad people want to kill her, at least I certainly hope not. The magic of realistic description took her there.

I think one of the great challenges of story-making is knowing how much description is enough, or when it is called for. Too much, the reader goes to sleep. Too little, there is no context for the actions of the characters. It's like the three bears--too hard, too soft, just right.

Complicate that by the kind of book it is. Some books linger forever. The Naked and the Dead (remember that one?). East of Eden. The Sun Also Rises. The Grapes of Wrath. Somehow we become imbued with a sense of time and place that stays even when the details of character, plot and story become hazy. Although I hated the book (not too strong a word), The Road comes to mind. Cold Mountain. And I really like Calumet City for crime noir urban grit.

These books are as different as can be from one another in setting and intent, but they all have incredibly skilled description of time and place as a core strength.

Good description is far more than the color of the sand or the haze over the mountains. It's a sensual experience when you get it right. You hear and feel the rustle of the wind, see the ominous beauty of a desert sunset and smell the heat coming off the barren lands around you. As much as possible, all senses are involved.


Unless you are a Steinbeck or a Thomas Wolfe, 
exercise caution.

When I write, the draft is always full of extraneous description which must be edited down to essence, something the reader can digest and feel while the story moves on. I can wax rhapsodic about almost anything (one of the things I love about blogging is that you can get away with clichés like that). But how much does a reader need?

Take a descriptive passage from whatever book you are working on out of context and open it in a new document. Read it again, out of context. Does it put you where you want the reader to be? If the reader didn't know the plot or who the characters were or what was happening, would that passage stand on its own? Does it feel real? If the answer is in doubt, perhaps you should rethink that description.

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite contemporary authors, for many reasons. Often he has his protagonist Harry Bosch standing on the deck of a precariously perched house in one of the canyons of LA. Each time, I get a new sense of the place even though I've stood on that deck with Harry through many books. Connelly doesn't need pages to make it work. He's a master of essence.

That's a challenge for all of us.

Write Like A Champion today.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Depth of Character: Masterpiece Theater's Downton Abbey

So you want to write good characters? Are you suffering from information overload from all those hundreds (if not thousands) of articles, books, blogs and what not with great tips about making your characters believable and real?

There is hope. Learn from the British writers of Masterpiece Theater Classics and have fun doing it. Learning the craft and entertainment at the same time, what could be better?

Downton Abbey is one of those Upstairs/Downstairs dramas the Brits are so fond of, set in the sunset of Empire and the time of extreme class distinctions. You know. 200 room country houses with a huge staff and Gainsborough paintings in the dining room. Where the silverware is laid out with a ruler. Servants who face poverty and disaster if they lose their position.

I won't go into details of the plot. It's quite complicated. What makes it work is the characters. What might be a ho-hum story with lots of tea and silverware becomes intensely involving. All this without large explosions and such a la Sherlock Holmes. WWI is approaching, so there will probably be future explosions, but I haven't seen that part yet.

Upstairs, devious women, sibling rivalry of the most hateful kind, flighty and highly intelligent people, an activist sister, an heirless master trying to deal with the issues of passing on the estate (complicated again) and four different women with a full range of conflicting emotions and ideas in a world ruled by men. Marriage for the daughters on everyone's mind. Changing times as women's rights become a factor. A dowager duchess control freak. A meddling aunt. The duties and restrictions of the upper class. And to cap it off, a middle class lawyer cousin from Manchester  (Manchester! Horror!) who is suddenly thrust into this unfamiliar world of extreme wealth by the untimely sinking of the Titanic and the deaths of the heirs presumptive. He's the new heir. And he doesn't even have a valet!

Downstairs, the new, mysterious valet to the master, immediately threatened by a scheming footman and m'lady's maid. A cook going blind, putting salt instead of sugar on the dessert. A ditsy, innocent country girl, cook's helper, coal carrier. The butler, who rules the servants, a man of honor and integrity and quite a lot of intuitive intelligence. The housemistress, who rules the maids and so forth. A maid who wants to improve herself, rise above her station and (Horror, Again!) become a secretary. The Irish revolutionary chauffeur, falling in love with the activist sister. And more.

A cast worthy of Shakespeare. Every single actor in this series is superb. Every actor is totally convincing. Every actor becomes the character in a way that illumines his or her motivation, desires, needs, flaws, challenges, mistakes, backstory.


I believe in the osmosis effect. Just as I think we learn most about writing by reading the work of authors we think are good and consciously observing how they do it, I think we can learn all anyone ever needs to know about character development by watching this show. Well, perhaps not all, but a hell of a lot.

Okay, you're settled in front of the big screen with a single malt or whatever, and you are wondering why I think this show is important for your personal craft of writing. The music begins, the credits roll. You have opened the writer's eye. Watch how you begin to form opinions about the various people in the story.

At first you know little, but infer much. The setting tells you that. Then you begin to see how people interact, what they are thinking about, how they behave. You are looking from a writer's eye. How the behavior of the characters speaks volumes about who they are. How the writers keep things back but let the viewer know something is hidden. How the story takes on life through the characters. How a sudden twist is completely unexpected and how it dramatically alters the course of the story. How the characters are affected by that. How you begin to infer more of where things are going and what someone might do and how you are surprised by what actually happens.

There's a good reason it's called Masterpiece Theater. Downton Abbey is an amazing production. From a writer's point of view, it's a graduate course in character definition and development. Watch it. I think you will agree.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Write Like A Champion

I saw an interesting interview program the other day, quite by accident. I normally don't watch TV, much less news and "personality" shows. I watch NetFlix. Right now I'm hooked on "Downton Abbey", an amazing piece of English television, a genuine visual novel masterpiece. But more about that in the next post. Suffice it to say that if you want to see how writing turns what could be a boring yarn turn into an amazing study of people, character and motivation, watch that show.

The program I watched featured George Clooney, Warren Buffet and Bon Jovi. Quite a mix. All very wealthy, all doing the TV bit to show you around their digs, and very nice digs they were, too. What I noticed was that Warren Buffet had a sign over the door in his office: "Play Like A Champion". That is a copy of the sign which hangs in the Notre Dame locker room. Knute Rockne. The Four Horsemen. All of that glory and tradition and, yes, championship. Success at the highest level.

Okay. Segue to Bon Jovi, who has only sold 350,000,000 records or so and earned a billion dollars doing it. Not bad for a kid from New Jersey, where he still lives. Not the same house, though. He took the TV audience on a little tour, including his recording studio. There on the wall was...

You guessed it. A sign that said "Play Like A Champion".

Maybe these folks are on to something. Clooney didn't have a sign but I think it's safe to say he's made it to the Champion category. If he can act like a champion, if WB can invest like a champion, if Bon Jovi can play like a champion, you and I can write like a champion. Champions, to be grammatically correct. That got me thinking about champions and what makes them so. What do champions do?

  • They never quit
  • They take all obstacles as challenges to be met and overcome
  • They never stop improving their skills
  • They never stop studying and learning
  • They never think it's "good enough"
  • They always believe in their ability
  • They see setbacks as an opportunity to get better at what they do
  • They listen to people who know more than they do
  • They seek coaching and direction
  • They give everything they have to their field
  • They stay totally focused
  • They are generous in victory and gracious in defeat
  • They never buy into the idea that it is someone else's fault if they fail
  • They always explore new avenues to accomplish their goals

I could find more thoughts about it, but you have your own. It's clear to me that becoming a successful writer means thinking like a champion. So I now have that sign right on my computer. Write Like A Champion.

It's a hell of a challenge.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Self-Promotion Treadmill: Part Three

I admit it. I'm a recovering Social Media addict. If you are an Indie writer I'll bet you know what I'm talking about. The mantra for self promotion chants a monotonous refrain of "Social Media" over and over. Sophocles would have loved it. He could have used it in a Greek chorus imploring the favor of the gods.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Amazon forums, reader groups on sites like Goodreads and Library Thing. I'm sure there are at least a dozen more I haven't heard of, and I don't want to. Tell me something, please. Do you really want to read another blurb about the next greatest book in whatever genre, including mine? Do you rush to open a new window, look the book up and buy it? Do you follow all the links, the blogs, the websites seeking your notice?

Be honest, now. No? That's what I thought.

Don't get me wrong. Some folks have learned how to use sites like Facebook to great advantage. They work hard at it, they spend time and money, they garner fans. They even sell books. I say, God Bless Them. But as a recovering social media addict, I know it's not for me, except in severe moderation.

Much of Facebook seems like endless twaddle to me (I've always wanted to use that word somewhere. Twaddle. Has a nice ring to it). To be fair, FB has a couple of very good writer groups I check into now and then. There are also one or two forums on Amazon that I enjoy, mostly composed of writers who have more to talk about than just their books. I follow one or two groups on Goodreads, for the same reason. I enjoy the virtual community, the sense of mutual support.


I've been reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King. His protagonist goes back to 1958, the year I graduated from High School. I remember 1958 quite well. King's book is in part a paean to a vanished time of real food, cool cars, no cell phones and no internet. It's also about racism, bigotry and Jim Crow. And because it's a Stephen King book, it's building a darkening tide of weirdness and fear. Pretty good, SK.

The point of my digression is that now isn't 1958. Now is constant bombardment from every direction by a massive overload of useless information, much of it through social media. It takes a lot of effort (WARNING: cliché ALERT) to sort the wheat from the chaff. Maybe too much effort, if you want to be a writer.


There's no denying some of those links and articles and blogs are informative, interesting and cool, but the Social Media internet is a voracious siren. It's time to tie ourselves to the mast and let the rocks slip by. We step ashore at our peril, if we want to focus on our writing. Without the writing, there would be nothing to self-promote anyway.

I have decided that about one half hour a day is the maximum amount of social media drug I'm willing to dope myself up with. Maybe someone should start a group on Facebook called Social Media Anonymous...but that might be addictive.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Self-Promotion Treadmill: Part Two

Lately I have been making myself crazy over the cover for my next book, The Seventh Pillar. One of the dictums of self-publishing, something you hear all the time, is the necessity for a good cover. But it's not just a cover: it's the KEY TO EVERYTHING, or at least that's what the gurus seem to be saying. If your cover isn't "good enough" your book is doomed to remain unnoticed, hovering somewhere around the 2,000,000 mark on Amazon, if you are lucky enough to have any number at all.

I have a wonderful cover designer for this book. Her name is Bonnie Lea Elliott and I am sure I am driving her to drink. I know I'm driving myself to drink. See, I know someone who is a really super guy who is also a genius when it comes to the publishing industry. I developed a cover with Bonnie that I thought was really good. My friend didn't like it. He gave me some very constructive criticism, some of which I cheerfully accepted. I made changes. He still didn't like it. But I like it. Bonnie likes it. Other people like it. It's a scary and powerful cover for a scary thriller. But my professional advisor doesn't like it.

The creeping shadow of self doubt has filled my soul and now I am lost...oh, wait, that's from a bad story I never finished....

Self promotion, for an Indie writer, means you wear all the hats. It's like being an entire football team on its way to the Super Bowl and of your hats is a punt returner. One is a field goal kicker. It's easy to make a mistake that can cost you...what? Not the big game, but that's what the mind tells you. If the cover isn't right, no one will buy it, you will have failed.

How did we get here, with this self promo thing? I just lost almost an entire day I could have been writing, thinking about this cover. Perhaps you have had a similar experience. It's true there are a lot of bad covers out there. But I don't buy books because of their covers. Ebooks aren't like going into a bookstore. I buy an ebook because I have read other works by that author, because someone I trust recommended the book, because something appealed in the excerpt, because I liked the description. I might even buy one with a lousy cover, for the same reasons. So it isn't the cover so much as the reviews, the word of mouth and plain serendipity.

Self Promoters Of The Indie World, Unite! Throw off your chains! Throw off the shackles of conventional thinking about what works and write! The Revolution demands sacrifice of the Old Gods...

I am reminded of an Ojibway saying, which I try to remember when I feel like I'm screwing everything up, like my latest cover, because of obsessive and unrealistic thoughts about what it's supposed to do. Here's the saying:

"Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while
A great wind is bearing me across the sky."

I'm going to make myself a drink, now.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Self-Promotion Treadmill

One of the downsides of being an Indie writer is the need for self promotion. I've spent a lot of time over the last year trying to figure out how to promote White Jade and The Lance. I've read a lot of blogs, articles and books about guerilla marketing and self promotion. Joe Konrath has probably written the Bible of Indie promotion. If you have not already done so, look him up. His blog is at Joe's basic philosophy is brutal in its simplicity: promotion takes time and a lot of work.

The problem isn't so much finding out what to do, it's balancing that with writing. For me, that is the real work. It's where the juice is. Marketing is a job. Writing is hard work, but it's not a job. It's life.

Nelson DeMille's approach is that writing more books is a better way to spend your time than self promotion. Konrath would agree that you need as many books out there as you can produce, a body of work over time.

You're probably in trouble if you are writing just for the money, both from a creative standpoint and for the future of your early retirement. But is good. Reward is good. Millions of readers would be good. That is going to take self promotion.

We are in the first stages of a massive revolution in publishing and marketing and it's not clear yet what really works and what doesn't. It also depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Here are a few things that keep popping up from various experts on marketing your books.

WARNING: Cliché Alert

Take this list with a grain of salt.

1.      ads don't work, don't waste your money
2.      press releases don't work, don't waste your money
3.      you need a great cover
4.      you need to write a lot of books
5.      a series is good
6.      you need to stick to your genre
7.      you need to keep control of your work
8.      you need to think in terms of the long run
9.      you need to think internationally
10.  you need friends
11.  you need to support other Indie writers
12.  you need to do all those things Amazon suggests, like the Author Central page
13.  you need the patience of Job

By friends, I don't mean Auntie May, your buddies Joe and Irene and your Mom. I mean the people you support and meet online, on Facebook, on the Amazon forums, in specialized groups on Goodreads and LinkedIn. I'm not so sure about Twitter, but maybe. The groups you choose to join are an invaluable resource. It doesn't mean those folks will buy your books. It does mean you can joke, laugh, tap resources, learn, celebrate success, get the word out about your writing, get yourself out of the writer's isolation and in general participate in the human race. That is good, trust me.

It boils down to this: link up with others and support them. Write as much as you can. Trust in the value of what you write. Have fun doing it. Otherwise, why bother? Remember Field of Dreams? If you build it, they will come...