Sunday, January 19, 2014

Checking In

I've been so busy lately that I've ignored the blog. My third novel, BLINDERS, is chugging toward a March 2014 release. My fourth novel is underway. There simply isn't enough time in the day to work a day job, write novels, and blog.

For the most up-to-date info on my work, follow my Facebook page.

For a chance to win an e-copy of NORTON ROAD, check out this page.

Happy reading.

Monday, October 21, 2013

I know How It Ends!

So last night I'm sitting there writing, 97k words into novel #3, when a plot twist pops into my head. I get so excited about it that I have to tell someone, so, like Jimmy Carter talking to Amy about nuclear weapons, I drag my son out of bed and sit in the dark living room telling him all about it.

I can't tell my wife because it will ruin the book for her before she gets a chance to read it. My son is ten, and already has a good writing head on his shoulders. We swap story ideas all the time. Besides, earlier in the week I told him the whodunit part of my plot (he looked at me with all the seriousness he could muster and told me to never again ruin one of my books for him like that).

The really great part about all this is that while I was sitting there telling my son how I'm going to work this twist into the plot, I realize I've just described the ending to him. I actually said, "Hey, that's how it ends!" I was excited. I've never known the ending to one of my books this far in advance.

With The Night Train, my first novel, I literally wrote the last line and prepared to start the next chapter when I realized the story had ended. With Norton Road, my second, I figured it out somewhere into the final chapter.

I know how novel #3 ends. Even better, instead of sleeping last night, I lay in bed and figured out how I'm going to get there. Okay, so I slept some. I had this nightmare about snakes invading my house and my rifle misfiring when I tried to shoot them, but I lay awake between snatches of sleep and worked on details. I have a clear path from where I am to the end of my novel. And, no, I didn't write any of it down. I'm not a note-taker. It's in my head, though. What if I forget it? Good question. I won't, because it's awesome. You don't forget awesome.

Does this mean I'm getting better at this writing thing? It certainly seems to come easier these days. My goal is for every novel to be a little better than the one before it. Plot-wise, suspense-wise, I think this one will fit that bill. Now my problem is finding time to write it. And a title. Titles come hard for me. Lack of title held novel #2 up for almost a month before it became Norton Road.

I'll think of a title, so I'm not worried. I'll think of one because I have to. I've got time. Did I mention that I know how this book will end?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

5 Things Every Writer Needs To Know

If there's one thing you'll find aplenty on the internet, it's advice. Advice for just about anything you ever needed advice on, and scores of things you don't.

Too much advice is, well, too much.

The one thing I've noticed is that most of the so-called advice is little more than a rehash of the same 'advice' found on dozens, maybe hundreds, of other sites. Advice is most often overrated.

This is sure to rankle a few well-meaning advice-givers, and that is not my intention.

So, in keeping with the overall view that people tend to read blogs that offer up a list, I've compiled my own list of five things every writer should know:

1) Most people who give you advice probably mean well.

When we see or hear something we think helpful, or informative, our knee-jerk reaction is to share it. Nothing wrong with that. The problem, though, is that sometimes things tend to get repeated to the point of repetition simply because they are repeated so much. People drift toward a herd mentality when it comes to these things. If everyone else is doing it, or thinking it, it must be right. Right? I could easily go political here, but I'll refrain.

2) What works for one, or many, may not work for you. Be yourself.

Writing fiction takes some degree of talent and a ton of hard work. Minus either, the result won't be spectacular. Even if every best-selling author on the shelf at Barnes and Noble did it a certain way (they didn't) doesn't mean you should. Tom Clancy, for example, didn't sit down and write his first novel to fit the template in place at that time for thrillers -- he created a new template. Clancy broke free of the boundaries in place for writers of thrilling fiction and applied his own style. I think it worked for him.

3) Go with your gut.

This is a continuation of #2. If you have what it takes (to write, sing, insert just about anything here) then you will know when you get it right. More importantly, because it will come first, you'll know when you don't have it right. Listen to your gut. Stand or fall on what YOU think is right, because in the end, it's your name on the line.

4) The only word you should never use is never.

I was reading a blog the other day about words a writer should never use. While I'm sure the writer of that blog meant well, as did the throng of me too! commenters, a seasoned writer should keep in mind that aspiring writers devour such advice and too often take your words literally. An example, in that blog, was that a writer should NEVER use the word walked. Never say Tom walked to the door. Say he sauntered to the door. Tom meandered to the door. Or, Tom sulked to the door. Okay, but what if Tom actually did just walk to the door? Personally, as a reader, few things make me throw a book aside faster than an author who uses colorful words to prop up lazy writing. People walk. Yes, they saunter sometimes. Sometimes they amble, but to say they should NEVER walk is absurd.

There was quite a list of words a writer should NEVER use. Of course you should avoid overusing words. I almost never use the word that, for instance, but I would never tell someone NEVER to use it. To be fair, the author of that blog did include a disclaimer that her rules should be applied with common sense, thereby negating her own use of the admonition NEVER, but such a disclaimer can easily be lost on someone eager to find advice to make his or her writing better.

So, to repeat, the only word a writer should NEVER use, is never. And by that I don't mean the actual word. I mean the notion that writing fiction has any hard set of rules. The page is your canvas. Words are your paint. Feel free to splash ... maybe even get a little paint on your hands. Be you.

5) If you are in it for the money, do something else.

We can all name a handful of authors who have money spilling out of his or her pockets, but percentage wise, writing fiction is probably not the quickest, or most effective, way to get rich. Good writing comes from passion. Do it because you can't not do it. Any money you make along the way is icing on the cake. And, if you do manage to become insanely wealthy, be careful when you dole out advice to the rest of us. We may be listening.

I Write About ...

I'm often asked what my books are about. Simple enough, right? I mean, I wrote them so surely I can sum them up in a few sentences. As easy as that may sound, it's not. If you consider the fact that it took me three hundred or so pages to tell the story, or that I may not get around to divulging the color of my main character's eyes until the second or third chapter, well, are you beginning to see where I'm going with this?

If you ask me that question, what's your book about?, and my eyes flash with panic, like I'm about to bolt for the nearest door, don't take offense. It's a really hard question to answer.

When I was a child I daydreamed a lot. Most nights I went to bed and lay there in the dark imagining myself in some wild adventure. Being a boy, those adventures often involved car chases, or me driving the family car like a skilled madman, but there was a catch. My daydreams HAD to be realistic. Before I could take off at break-neck speeds in the LTD (that was a car made by Ford, kids), I first had to come up with a logical reason why I would do so. Then, with justification in my pocket, every daredevil maneuver had to be possible. No Dukes of Hazard dirt-pile jumping for me. Not in momma's car. And if I crossed a ditch at high speed, that ditch had to be shallow enough to cross. Most nights I fell asleep long before I worked out the details.

That's a true story.

I write about fictional people who have real problems with real solutions. No vampires or goblins or, I cringe just writing the word, ZOMBIES. I obsess over getting the details right. Not only does it have to be possible, it has to be plausible. Just because a character can behave a certain way doesn't mean they should do so without a justifiable reason. Take Jayrod Nash, for example. In THE NIGHT TRAIN, Jayrod is the abused boy who runs away from home by hopping a freight train, but the story isn't a sermon on child abuse. When I sat down to write this book I wanted to tell the story through Jayrod's eyes. He was abused, but he was still a boy. He still enjoyed the things boys enjoy. In many ways he didn't realize his life was that different from the other boys he knew. My contention was that even abused boys have fun sometimes. They laugh sometimes. Not all days are bad. Some are hell. As I wrote his story, I got to know him. I spent untold hours pretending to be him, in his situation. Then I realized something was missing. I needed to add the other half of the story -- the abuser. It was when I added the point of view of Jayrod's father, Jonce, that THE NIGHT TRAIN took on a life of its own. It was that click that told me I had found what I was looking for.

Since writing THE NIGHT TRAIN, I've received comments from readers who say they were abused, and they told me I got it right.

But what about NORTON ROAD? What's it about? Again, I wrote from two different points of view. Both sides of the conflict. Pap Jones is a contrary old man who continuously sneaks into the furniture factory next door at night and tries to disrupt production by tinkering with sewing machines or taking the blades off saws in the frame shop. In the grand scheme of things, he's harmless. Bodie Craig is the ex-cop tasked with putting a stop to Pap's shenanigans. Bodie is young and ambitious, but the main difference between him and Pap is that Bodie lacks a moral compass. When Bodie crosses the line, Pap refuses to back down, and the two become mired in a struggle that spirals out of control.

The most frequent comment I get from people who have read NORTON ROAD is that they think they know who the book is about. Everyone seems to know who Pap is, or who Bodie is. The truth is, the book is fiction. The characters are fictional.

What are my books about? They are about real-life conflicts. I take it as the ultimate compliment when readers refuse to believe the characters are products of my imagination.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Being Public

Since last blogging, I've had the honor of participating in a speaking/book signing event with a group of other authors at our local Barnes and Noble. You would have to know how much I love just walking around that particular bookstore to understand what an honor that was for me. Feeling honored doesn't mean I wasn't nervous. Come to think of it, I was downright scared.
author's night
Barnes and Noble

I'm shy. Sometimes I get nervous just interacting with the cashier at Walmart. Other times I can be outgoing and chatty, though those times are few and far between. What I really suck at is small talk.

Nine times out of ten, when someone introduces themselves to me, I don't catch their name because I'm trying to plan what I'll say next -- something that won't make me sound stupid.

"Hi, I'm Bob."
"I'm Carl."
"What did I say my name was?"
"I have no idea."

I was able to go through with the Barnes and Noble appearance for two reasons: it was something I had always dreamed of doing, and because my wife stood firmly beside me. I knew no matter how things went, she would tell me I did a great job. Everyone needs someone to lean on, and she has always been there for me. I don't always do a good job of letting her know how much I appreciate it. She wanted to video me speaking but I made her promise not to, though our son videoed it on his iPod (I haven't watched it). My wife tells me I did fine, and without video evidence to the contrary, I believe her. Regardless, it was a great learning experience.

Three days from now I have another speaking engagement at my local library. I don't yet know what I'll say, or how nervous I'll be. Less nervous than at Barnes and Noble, I think, because I have one under my belt now. I've also been invited to speak to a group of seventh graders at an area middle school, and I have a solo book signing at Barnes and Noble in December.

It's hard for me to imagine anyone wanting to sit and listen to me talk about myself, or my books, but I'm very thankful to those who do.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

I hope everyone has a safe and happy Independence Day.

We should all take a moment to reflect on the tremendous courage and sacrifice that has gone into making us the free society we are today.

Detractors often highlight the flaws of our Founders in an effort to convince us they were not great men, and thereby the fruits of their labors (USA) can't possibly be great. All that tells me is that we should not let our flaws keep us from doing what we feel is right. We all have flaws. Anyone who tells you they have no flaws has just exhibited the greatest flaw at all.

Did you know George Washington had only 7 - 8 years of formal education? He educated himself by reading. Being a country gentleman was very important to him, and he is said to have been self-conscious of his lack of formal education even after becoming one of the wealthiest men in America (though the majority of his wealth derived from his marriage to Martha Custis). The lesson I take away from this is that even the greatest of men can feel themselves lacking. Perhaps what makes them so great is their refusal to let self-doubt stop them from reaching higher.

Women are often overlooked in the recounting of the founding of this great nation. This is simply a flaw in the retelling of events, not in the lack of great women to look to.

Our United States of America seems to be a favorite target for detractors these days. Perhaps Taylor Swift said it best: "People throw rocks at things that shine."

America has always stood as the beacon of freedom. It is our duty to make sure it continues to shine.

Today is a day of celebration. Hotdogs and hamburgers and fireworks galore! Have fun. Be safe. Take a moment to tell your children and grandchildren what the festivities are all about. Children love a good story, and our history is chock full of great ones.

Between bites and sips, remember to say a word of thanks to all the men and women who have sacrificed so that we my have the freedoms we so often take for granted. Protecting our freedom is an ongoing task, so remember to thank those who continue to stand between us and those who wish to do us harm. But most of all, remember to thank God.

American flag images courtesy of Patriot Icon.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Formatting A Novel

You've written the next great novel. Now what? If you're self-publishing, as I do, you have a lot more work to do. I've already talked about covers, so now I'll say a bit about formatting. If you're looking for a how-to-format post, this ain't it. There are plenty of places to learn about formatting (though I highly recommend you stop by Smashwords and read their formatting guide). I'm going to talk about my experience formatting my latest novel, Norton Road.

When I published The Night Train in 2012, I formatted my e-books using Calibre.It worked well, and I recommend it if you are converting from a Microsoft Word file. This time around, however, I wrote my novel using Scrivener. The reasons I recommend Scrivener are too numerous to mention here without detracting from the subject at hand. Let's just say I love it and, since it has a compile tool to generate all sorts of file types (including Doc, PDF, EPub, MOBI), I decided to give its formatting feature a try.

Generating the MOBI file I uploaded to Amazon was seamless. I prefer to upload a MOBI to Amazon instead of a Doc file because I can test the file on my Kindle before uploading. Amazon just makes the process of publishing your e-book easy. Now for Barnes and Noble.

The EPub file I generated using Scrivener looked great in the reader I have on my Macbook Pro (I don't have a Nook), but when I uploaded it to B&N and previewed it, the text was all centered, except for the title page, which was weirdly centered at the left margin. I tried every combination of tweaking Scrivener settings I could imagine without success. I even googled the problem, but learned nothing other than a lot of readers are complaining that the books they download to their Nooks have centered text. Every response I saw blamed it on improper formatting by the publisher (me, in my case). Not a word about how to resolve the issue if the EPub file you are uploading looks perfect BEFORE you upload it.

To make matters worse, when I opened the EPub file in the online editor, it looked perfect. No centered text except where it belonged. So how do you "fix" the file when it looks correct before you upload it, and afterwards in the online editor? My hunch was that the problem was just in the online viewer, and that it would look correct on the Nook, but my googling efforts disabused me of that hope. So I went back to Scrivener.

I checked a setting in the compile wizard to remove trailing white space. It looked no different in my offline viewer, but when I uploaded and looked in the online viewer the text was aligned as it should be, except for the title page. My solution for that was to open the online editor and delete the three lines on my title page and retype them. That worked. When you are doing it all yourself, sometimes you just have to put your shoulder to it until you get it right.

My third stop for the day was Smashwords. I compiled (from Scrivener) to a Doc file, added in the Smashwords edition blurb, and sent it on its way. Easy. Do you hear that, NookPress? Amazon and Smashwords didn't give me an ulcer.

Formatting my paperback edition was a matter of opening my final Doc file from The Night Train and replacing the contents (a chapter at a time) with the contents from Norton Road. Why? Because I had spent a lot of time getting The Night Train formatted the way I wanted it so it looked good in print, and I didn't want to have to try and remember all the changes I made to their template (I made several). It was time-consuming, but I hope I can get to the finished product with a single proof order. I'll know if I succeeded Thursday when the proof copy arrives.

One of the problems with formatting is that by the time I get the next novel written I've forgotten most of what I knew about it. It's almost like starting over. Thankfully, tools like Scrivener and Calibre make it possible for someone like me who hates reading help files.

Tell me your formatting stories.