writing advice

Review of ‘Modern Mythmakers: 35 Interviews with Horror & Science Fiction Writers and Filmmakers’

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Modern Mythmakers: 35 Interviews with Horror & Science Fiction Writers and Filmmakers by Michael McCarty is a gem. A collection of 35 interviews with some of the biggest names in sci-fi and horror fiction and film, this book is chock full of sage advice for those who want to write in these genres, or fans. It gives a down and dirty look at what drives or drove such greats as the late Ray Bradbury, Dean Koontz, and others who have given us books and films that have become classics.

This is a book that you’ll want to read again and again. It’s now in my reference library, and I proudly award it five stars–only because I can’t give it six.

The Write Way: What Not to Do So That Your Writing Rings True

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You’re penning that mystery novel, and you think you have the perfect scene; a body lies in a pool of blood on the sidewalk, your PI protagonist, a police detective, and the medical examiner stand over it. The following dialogue ensues:

Cop:  “What do we have here, doc?”

ME:  “A white male in his late thirties with GSW to the chest.”

PI: “When did he die?”

ME: “From lividity and liver temp, I’d place time of death between 2 and 2:30 this morning.”

Okay, let’s stop there. There would be beats, or actions included here, not just lines of dialogue, but that’s not the point I wanted to make. Readers raised on a diet of TV cop shows will probably not see anything wrong with this little scene, but they would be wrong. There are so many things here that are incorrect it’s hard to know where to start. If you’re writing fiction, though, it’s important that you get it right—or as close to right as possible—whether you think your readers know the difference or not. And, be warned, more readers than you might imagine will know the difference, and they will not forgive you for not knowing.

Think about it - do your research - before you write it down.
Think about it – do your research – before you write it down.

Following are a few things that you shouldn’t do if you want your writing to have that ring of authenticity that allows readers to suspend disbelief and follow along.

  1. Don’t have characters in a situation that would never occur in real life.  In the dialogue example above, the PI is standing over the corpse with the cop and medical examiner. No way! A private investigator, unless he was a suspect and being grilled—and, that would be in a police station, by the way, not out on the street—is a private citizen, and would never been allowed past the crime scene tape. It’s also unlikely that the medical examiner would be at the crime scene. These guys work in the lab.
  2. Don’t have characters doing or saying things they would never say in real life. The ME (who wouldn’t be there in the first place) also wouldn’t give time or cause of death prior to conducting at least a preliminary autopsy, regardless of how many do it on TV. There are too many factors that must be examined to determine cause or time of death for someone to be able to look at a corpse on the sidewalk and make such definitive statements.
  3. Don’t have agencies or organizations doing things they don’t do in real life. The ME in real life doesn’t usually go to crime scenes. Again, forget what you see on TV. Another pet peeve of mine is having agencies, especially federal agencies, doing things they would never do in real life. The Patriot Act notwithstanding, federal agencies don’t normally just swoop onto the scene and shove local authorities aside. Unless a case is clearly interstate in nature, or is a case of international terrorism, the FBI has no jurisdiction. Local sheriffs, for instance, have more power than people realize, and can block federal officials in their jurisdictions. My son-in-law is a postal inspector (the investigative arm of the US Postal Service), and he tells me of some western sheriffs who’ve detained postal inspectors for serving federal warrants in their counties without first notifying the sheriff’s office. Now, that’s power. Another pet peeve of mine is the way travel of foreigners is handled, or how the role of diplomats is portrayed—all wrong in most cases. An example I saw recently had cops investigating the murder of a young Brazilian au pair in NYC. In the course of their investigation they learned that the victim had bribed an officer at the Brazilian consulate general to get her brother a permanent visa into the United States. He killed her, and they lured him onto the sidewalk where he was arrested. Forgetting the unlikelihood of NYPD pulling a stunt like this, the fact is, foreigners wanting visas to come to the U.S. don’t go to their consulates, they go to an American consulate or embassy, and if that organization issues them a visa, they then have to apply to an immigration officer at the US airport at which they land for permission to actually legally enter the U.S.
  4. Leave out the magic technology. Unless you’re doing science fiction or really futuristic stuff, don’t have technology doing things like instant identification of an individual from a partial print, or immediate identification from a small DNA sample. Identification through fingerprints, even with today’s technology, requires comparison of the print against a print on file and agreement of several points of identification. Often, matches are a percentage of comparability rather than a 100% match. DNA testing and analysis takes time; it’s not a push button affair.
  5. Don’t have your victims flying through the air after being shot. This is one that really gets my goat. It’s a mainstay in a lot of gory movies. The victim gets shot and the force of the bullet slams him into a wall, or through a window or door. Uh-uh; in real life it doesn’t happen. I’ve been in a war zone, and I’ve seen guys hit with M16 slugs and still continue to charge forward. I once stood next to a sergeant who accidentally shot himself in the hand with his .45 caliber pistol. It took a portion of his finger off, but didn’t cause his hand to fly forward. When people get shot, what often happens is they stop, unless they were moving rapidly in one direction, in which case they often continue, and then they fall to the ground.
  6. Don’t do Bruce Lee kung fu fight scenes. The kung fu movie fight scenes are great choreography, but in real fights—including the martial arts variety—no one dances around like that. If you want to write fight scenes that sound real, spend some time in a gym or dojo and watch real fighters go after each other.

Okay, that’s a nice half dozen tips to get you started. I know most how-to lists are 5, 10, or some multiple of 5, but I like to be different, so deal with it. And, if you’re nice, I might even share some more hard-earned knowledge with you in the future. Got any more ideas on what makes fiction seem unreal? Share them with me at charlesray.author@gmail.com, and if I use them in a future article, I’ll give you full credit.

#IWSG: What I’ve Learned from the Insecure Writer Support Group

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup It’s December, 2015, the second of the month, to be exact, and it’s time again for my contribution to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, a forum of bloggers who share their fears, hopes, dreams, and ideas for the benefit of the writing community. You can see a list of them here, as well as throw your own hat into the ring and share your pearls of wisdom.

This is the last post of the year and, sadly for me, my last contribution to the group. I find that running two blogs, reviewing 3 – 4 books per week, trying to write my own books, and teaching three courses at local colleges—just to list my main activities—takes up more time than I’d anticipated. In addition, I’m not sure I have anything else to share that’s really new.

I thought for my last post in the group, I’d talk about the things I’ve gained from being a part of IWSG for the past many months. That’s right; this has been more of a learning exercise for me—I’ve gained much, much more than I’ve given.

I’ve learned that, while writing is essentially a solitary activity, thanks to social media, blogs, and the Internet, a writer doesn’t have to be totally alone. I’ve gained many friends over the past three years, many of them writers, and I’ve learned something valuable from each of them.

Reading the blogs by other members of the group I’ve improved my own writing. Hints on how to develop characters, or to develop meaningful character names, a great post by Jody Hedlund. There were a lot of inspirational posts, like Rachel Shieffelbein’s advice on not quitting when the going gets hard.

There were more, so many more that there’s not enough space here to mention them all. At this writing there were 255 bloggers participating in the Insecure Writer Support Group monthly posting. That’s a lot of potential sources of advice and inspiration. I know—I’ve been inspired and gotten tons of advice over the months. I’ll keep dropping in from time to time, because I know there’s always something new to learn.

In the meantime, my parting piece of advice to all you writers and wannabe writers out there—stop threatening to write, stop procrastinating. Listen to Rachel Shieffelbein; sit yourself down and put fingers to keyboard and WRITE.

Happy holidays to all my regular readers, and a happy successful year ahead. Keep reading, keep writing.

#IWSG: Dealing With Know-it-Alls

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time again. It’s the first Wednesday of the month and time for another offering to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group (#IWSG). Here’s where we share and encourage each other, as we write about our fears and weaknesses, discuss our failures and triumphs, and offer words of encouragement to others out there who struggle like we do. Sometimes, we use it to vent our frustrations with the things that devil writers’ lives. If you’d like to be a part of this group, check out the link above.

This month, I’d like to briefly address the know-it-alls, bullies, and trolls out there who seem to have a mission of making everyone else’s lives as miserable as I imagine there are. We’ve all encountered them. They’re the ‘expert’ at the gym who just has to show you how to properly exercise, despite only being a member for a week longer than you, or the ‘helpful’ person at the golf course who feels an obligation to critique the golf swing of a total stranger. If you’re a writer, you’re particularly vulnerable to this type of person, and even though I used three labels at the beginning of this paragraph, that was just for literary effect. In fact, these are just bullies; people who never outgrew the urge to pull the wings off flies.

Where can you encounter them as a writer? I’ve mentioned them a few times in previous blogs. They’re the reviewers who pan your work in the most strident of terms, or who slam you as a writer without showing any evidence that they’ve ever really read it. They’re like the reviewer who slammed a book because she felt the regional dialect of a couple of the characters insulted them; ignoring the fact that in that particular passage, this is precisely what the author was aiming for—for the specific characters, not a particular group. If, like me, you write book review—and I read a lot, so why not—you’re still likely, no you’re sure, to encounter this type. There are those who will attack you because they don’t like the rating you gave something they liked or hated, because your rating betrays a particular political or social leaning they find offensive, etc.

They’re out there, and the Internet has increased their reach. They can now pull the wings off flies from across the globe, and do it anonymously. So, how do you handle them? It’s not easy. No one likes to repeatedly turn the other cheek. Especially when it’s being verbally slapped. But, Mark Twain said it well – “Never argue with stupid people. They will only bring you down to their level, and beat you with experience.

Review of ‘How to Keep Writing Your Book’

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All writers struggle, and there are hundreds—nay, thousands—of advice books for them. But, How to Keep Writing Your Book by Natasha House is a how-to book for writers with a difference.

Written in a chatty style, often with nonstandard language, House’s book feels like the author is talking to the reader one-on-one. An indie author herself, and still relatively young, House demonstrates a wisdom beyond her years in this book. A nice-to-have addition to any writer’s reference collection.

I give it three and a half stars, and look forward to even more from this young author in the future.

#IWSG: How to Promote Your Book for Free

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s that time of the month again—first Wednesday—time for a contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group, a collection of nearly 300 avid bloggers who share ideas, fears—you name it—about writing for fellow writers. If you’d like to become a part of this stellar group, go here and sign up.

This month, I want to address an issue that I know concerns everyone who writes for publication; book promotion, and how to avoid some of the schemes floating around.

Book promotion is like going to the dentist. It’s one of those things that is unpleasant, but necessary for good health, or in the case of a book, getting sales. Social media, as pervasive as it is these days, is a good way to promote your published work, or even create buzz for a work in progress, but the problem is knowing how to use it.

I’ve found Twitter to be a highly effective means to get word out about my books. So, apparently, have thousands—if not millions—of other people. As with any technique that works, it has also spawned a whole new industry of people who offer, for a fee, to help you get your word out to the Twitterverse.

I’m not calling these offers scams, because the majority of them are probably honest offers. But, honest or not, they are unnecessary. Why pay $50 upwards to have tweets posted about your book by someone else, when you could, with a little effort, probably do the same thing yourself? Or, you could find one of the free retweet services, such as CoPromote, to do it. I’ve been using this one for several months now, and during time have reached over 4 million new potential readers, and seen a 25% increase in monthly book sales, both paperback and e-Book. CoPromote is a relatively easy concept. You sign up, link your account to your Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube accounts. You then pick a Twitter, Tumblr or YouTube post to promote and highlight it (the instructions are easy). After you’ve selected a post to promote, you scroll through posts by other members and select up to ten per day. The posts you select are promoted on your accounts, and other members promote your post. My average number of shares during the two week promotion period has been 150,000 to just over 300,000 new shares. That’s a lot of new readers. When I first signed up, Facebook posts could also be linked, but due to technical problems, this is no longer possible. The web masters at CoPromote say they’re working on the problem, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. There is, though, a way around the problem. I have my Facebook and Twitter accounts linked, so that when I tweet, it also does a Facebook post. Helps others more than me, other than the fact that it helps enhance my reputation as someone who promotes others–not a bad thing for a writer.

I use CoPromote primarily to promote published books, but have also used it for other projects, such as my photography.  This gives me extended reach to new readers without having to do frequent sales pitches on my own accounts. And, it costs me nothing. Now, you can’t get better advertising than that. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who has had experience with CoPromote or any other free book promotion site.

#IWSG: Stop Writing – Get Some Exercise!

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup That time of the month again—the time when I make my offering on behalf of Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, a bunch of bloggers bent on being the best at helping fellow writers beam bright in the blogosphere and elsewhere in the writing firmament. If you’re interested in sharing your views, pop on over to IWSG and sign up. Each month, we write about something that interests us, and that we hope will be of interest to others; advice, fears, triumphs, etc.

This month, I’m going to depart from the usual advice to writers, to wit, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, and tell you that sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is to STOP!

Given that I’m usually spouting off that the only way to write well is to write often, and my frequent suggestion of having a 1 – 2,000 word per day writing goal, my regular readers are probably scratching their heads in wonder right now. Bear with me, though, and you’ll see the method to my madness.

Everyone has, no doubt, heard or read the old adage, ‘a healthy mind makes a healthy body,’ or something along those lines. The meaning of that is usually, a good mental attitude is important to maintaining physical health. But, scientific studies have shown that the opposite is also true: maintaining good physical health helps to improve brain functioning. Staying physically active, keeping your heart, lungs, and blood vessels healthy helps ensure adequate oxygen gets to all parts of the body, including brain cells. And, while we’re talking about exercise, which is great for maintaining the physical plant—muscles, bones, vital organs—it’s also great for conditioning the brain. That’s right. Science has discovered that the brain has more plasticity than previously thought, and even in adulthood, can be improved through exercises such as puzzles, learning a new language, or learning to play a musical instrument.

Ideas, and the manipulation of language are a writer’s stock and trade, which means that for us as writers, the brain is one of our most important possessions. It stands to reason, then, that we should keep it in top condition. So, to keep that idea engine humming along like a Mercedes Benz S500, step away from the computer for a short period every day. Get out and walk through the park—briskly. Start every other morning with a nice, heart pumping workout, work the daily crossword—with a ballpoint pen.

You don’t have to sacrifice any of your writing goals to do this. Like writing, exercise can be worked into a 24-hour day if you really want to do it. Turn off the TV for thirty minutes. You’ve seen that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer anyway. Get out and walk around the block

Your writing will be better for it.

#IWSG: PC or not PC – that is the question

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup It’s July, and the first Wednesday of the month already. Time for another offering for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, postings by a bunch of great and savvy writers with hints, advice, and stories of how we can all overcome the fear that sometimes gets us down. Want to join in? Go here and check it out. Sign up if you’ve a mind to.  This month, I want to talk about political correctness—the bane of many modern writers.

On Fathers’ Day, I got into a conversation with my daughter about writing. We started out talking about some of the ultra-right wing writers who set our teeth on edge, and whose work I can never finish because it’s so biased and . . . well, you get it. Anyway, that segued into political correctness, and how much of it is too much in creative writing. This is a topic of particular interest to me because I write a western/historical series about the Buffalo Soldiers in the west after the Civil War, and given the racial and social dynamics of the time, some of today’s PC restrictions (words, topics, etc.), if followed to the letter, would make it impossible to tell the stories of these valiant men credibly.

In a way, though, the same goes for my mystery series. Although it’s set in the present day, it’s about every day (and sometimes not so every day) people who live in Washington, DC – not the DC of politicians, lobbyists, and spies, but the gas station attendants, drug dealers, grocery clerks – you get my drift – the people who live in the real world.

So, how far should political correctness or sensitivity go? In my writing, I have a few self-imposed rules I follow, not so much to be PC, but so nothing gets in the way of telling a good story.

Sex – Got nothing against it, but I avoid overly graphic sex in my stories, even the gritty mystery. My reason: the act itself does little to advance the story. The seduction and the aftermath might, in which case I leave them in, but the anatomical details of the act itself have nothing to do with the plot., so I leave them out. Besides, I find it more enticing to let people imagine.

Profanity – People swear, and that’s a fact of life. Some people swear more than others, and they can be quite graphic and colorful when they do. I don’t put a swear word on every page, but when it’s appropriate to the scene, I use the word the character would use in the situation in real life. Once or twice to let readers know what kind of character they’re dealing with. Usually that’s enough.

Ethnic, Gender, and National Stereotypes   – Again, people do this, and when it’s important to establish this in a character, and it has to do with the story, I let fly. Again, as with profanity, I try not to overdo it—just enough to establish the character.

Handicaps, etc. – Unless it’s essential to the story, I don’t stress  handicaps in my stories. There will be cripples, people with emotional or mental problems, etc., usually, though, it’ll play a role in the story. Gratuitous pokes, though, are a strict no-no. An example of what I mean: in a work in progress, a young man is accused of murdering the man he abused his mentally ill younger sister. The girl’s condition is key to the story, as it explains his reaction, and is also used to set up a couple of key scenes.

That’s not a complete list of PC stuff, but I think it’s enough to tell you where I stand on the issue. Political correctness, in moderation, is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t hurt people with our writing—unless, like politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and other scumbags, they deserve to be hurt. But, we should also be fair to our readers. Writing holds up a mirror to the world, and says, ‘Look, this is how it is. Edited a bit for clarity and flow, but baby, it’s not that vanilla world you’d like to live in, so learn to deal with the bits of nut and chocolate chip.’

I was a diplomat for 30 years. I’ll bet you think that made me ultra-PC. Not so. Contrary to what you might believe from popular portrayals of diplomats, we can be quite blunt at times—when it gets the job done. That’s the how your writing should be.

#IWSG: How Having an Established Routine Can Help You Be More Creative

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupHere we are, another first Wednesday, and time for a contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG), a talented (yours truly excepted) group of writers who share tips, advice, fears, and other neat stuff about writing. If you have something you’d like to share, trot over to the IWSG site and join up. In the meantime, this month, I’d like to talk about something that might seem counterintuitive—how having a relatively unvarying routine can help your creativity. That’s right, a dull, boring, same-thing-every day routine can actually be a boon to your creative process, so stop shaking your head and laughing and listen up. If the link above doesn’t work, go to http://insecurewriterssupportgroup.blogspot.com/. This is a temporary link until the insecure Writer Support Group moves to a new domain.

My Daily Routine

Every day, except when I’m sick and have to stay in bed (and, thankfully, my sick days are few and far between), I’m up between 5:30 and 6:30. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember. I started life on a farm, where early rising was part of the daily routine, went from there to the army where it was part of the daily routine, and after 37 years of that as a daily routine, it is now hardwired into my system. Since I retired from government service three years ago, my wife has tried to get me to sleep in on occasion, but my body has become so accustomed to the 6 – 8 hour per night sleep, after 7.5 hours, my brain starts urging it to get up, and if I go over 8 hours, I get sore muscles, back aches and headaches. Besides, as you’ll see when I get to my ‘Work Routine,’ having a regular sleep-wake cycle is part of what contributes to my creativity.

After getting up, I do my daily exercise, shower and shave, walk the dog (or when we haven’t had a dog I just walk about half a mile), and fix breakfast. After eating breakfast I check emails, and then write for a few hours unless I have a scheduled activity outside the house.

After a couple hours writing, I take another walk. Then, if the weather is good I sit on my deck for two hours, smoking my pipe and either reading, taking pictures of the birds that visit the feeder, or making notes in one of my journals.

Two to three days each week, when I don’t have scheduled activity away from home, I take a two-hour nap from 2:00 to 4:00. As you get older, you too might find this a refreshing way to recharge and build energy.

In the evening, around 6:00, I feed and walk the dog again, wash up and eat supper, and then watch about two hours of TV. After getting my idiot tube fix, I hit the keyboard again and write until around 10:30, or sometimes 11:00, then I go to bed.

I do this Sunday through Saturday, holidays included. When I travel, it’s much the same except for walking the dog and fixing breakfast—I eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant on the road.

What follows is my writing work routine, and you’ll see how my daily life schedule fits it—and, hopefully, how all this feeds into what little creativity I possess.

My Work (writing, photography, and art) Routine

My focus here is on writing primarily. For starters, I have a daily writing quota of at least 2,000 words per day (I once did 1,000, but now that I no longer have a full-time day job working for someone else, I find it quite easy to make the 2,000 quota, and quite often exceed it by several thousand words. I do this regardless of any other planned activity, writing in portable journals I always carry with me when I travel. I write blog postings, book reviews, and work on whatever book project that is in progress—often having two or three books going at the same time.

I spend at least one hour each day reading. I read everything; books for review in several genres, books for pleasure—also in several genres, but mainly mysteries, thrillers, history, and science fiction—checking current news both local and international. When I’m reading, even for pleasure, I make notes of passages that strike me as exceptionally well done. These become guides or jogs for my own writing.

When I’m working on a book project, I write until I’ve reached a point where the ideas begin to slow, but not before I’ve done 2,000 words. I never stop at the end of a chapter, though, writing at least the first paragraph of the next chapter before closing it out. This makes it easier to pick up the next day.

Before I start on a book project, I do a rough chapter or section outline with main plot themes, characters involved, and the action for each chapter. I make character lists, with names, origins, ages, gender, occupation, and special characteristics of each character listed, and refer to them frequently as I write. I also do a timeline for the whole book, with start and end date, and then research to learn what historical events took place during that period. Sometimes the events will be specifically referred to, and at other times, I’ll have a character react to some historical event. I find this adds authenticity to stories and helps put readers more into what’s going on.

Sometimes I’ll devote most of a day to either photography or art (drawing and painting). For either I’m thematic. For instance, if I’m taking pictures, I’ll focus on birds or landscapes. Same with art, I’ll pick a specific subject and do drawings or paintings of that subject for a few hours.

How my Routine Helps my Creativity

At this point, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with creativity. Well, since I have my day pretty well mapped out, and I’ve been doing it so long I no longer have to think consciously about it—for instance, when I put on my shoes I always put the left shoe on first for some reason. This leaves my mind free to focus on the creative aspects of my work. While I’m cooking my breakfast, for instance, I’ll be thinking about my work in progress. I might, for example, think about how preparing a meal could be worked into my current story, and how it might be used to foreshadow a key event in the story.

Even when I’m out taking pictures, my mind is taking in details of my surroundings. What sounds do I hear? How does the ground feel beneath my feet? What does the forest smell like at certain times of the day, or during different seasons? What color is the sky in the early morning as compared to late afternoon? All of these can add to the depth and richness of what you write.

Even when I’m taking my afternoon nap, my mind is working. I usually fall asleep thinking about my work in progress, and when I wake up, I’m one of a fortunate few people who can vividly remember my dreams. Immediately upon waking up, I go to my journal and jot down the most memorable parts of my dreams.

Now, I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. By having a well-established routine, your mind is free to roam; to go off on those creative tangents that help to enliven your writing. You get more done—sort of two for one, if you will—the day-to-day activities of life get done, and at the same time you are creating what could very well be something a great number of people would enjoy reading or seeing.

Review of ‘How to Write Something Interesting’

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Sometimes good things do come in small packages. How to Write Something Interesting  by Amelie Rose is one of those small, good things.

A book on writing for the beginning writer of any age, this brief book is chocked full of advice for those just embarking on the writing journey. It is written simply, and breaks the writing process down into its basic components in a way that anyone can understand.

It is simply written, and simply outstanding, except for a few minor formatting errors, and is as useful for experienced writers as beginners. I give it four stars.

Review of ‘Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine’

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If you’re a writer who wants to take your work to the next level of professionalism and excellence, there are three things you really must do. First is reading as much fine prose as your time schedule allows. Second is to write, rewrite, and write some more. The third, and easiest, thing to do—in conjunction with the first two—is to get a copy of Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine by noted author and editor Tahlia Newland.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review, and now I’m waiting for it to come out in paperback so that I can buy a desk copy to keep near my computer as I write. Newland, an accomplished author and professional editor, peels away the mystery of prose writing. She begins by stating emphatically that this is NOT a book of rules; it’s a compendium of guidelines based upon her years as a writer and editor. But, and here I’ll paraphrase her, these are guidelines that have stood the test of time, and while they can be ignored, when it’s appropriate to do so, there are risks attendant upon doing so.

She takes the reader through the writing process in easily digestible chunks, covering such topics as the difference between active voice and active prose, how to write effective dialogue and descriptions, and how to choose the most effective point of view for your story.

This, though, is more than just a book about how to write more effectively. She also includes sections on how to effectively self-edit, and how to review the work of others; distinguishing, for instance, the difference between copy editing and line editing—something that I, as a frequent book reviewer, have often struggled with.

Assuming you’re already proficient in grammar and spelling, and you are familiar with the topic about which you wish to write, this is the most important reference book you could have in your writer’s library. Five stars only because i can’t give it six.

#IWSG: Where Story Ideas Come From – 2

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup In this month’s offering for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group monthly blog, I’d like to continue my post from last month about the source of ideas for the stories I write. First, though, a few words about the group. This is a posting on the first Wednesday of each month by some outstanding bloggers from around the world addressing the insecurities and fears of writing as well as advice and tips on how to get the most out of your talent. You should pop over and check it out, and while you’re there, sign up to join this august crew.

Okay, enough promotion, now on to the finale of ‘where story ideas come from,’ an adaptation of a post I did a few years ago.

When I started writing the Al Pennyback mystery series, I didn’t have a specific sub-genre in mind.  It’s not a hardboiled mystery with a hero who is always battling bad guys; nor is it a procedural mystery – I go light on the technical aspects of crimes, criminals, or police procedures.  I was just going for a good story that had a crime as a central element, which the hero, Al Pennyback, would then set about solving.

My main motivation for writing this particular series was the fact that I live in the Washington, DC area, and have for more than 30 years, and most of the stories set in this locale are about politicians, spies, or high-powered lobbyists.  I know that the average Joe and Jane who happens to call the Washington metro area home lives a life that can be just as exciting as the K Street crowd, or the boys across the river in McLean, so, about ten years ago I started drafting.

My first, Color Me Dead, went through more than six years of rewriting; the title changed, the central plot changed, and most importantly, the name and background of the main character changed.  I no longer remember what I called him at first, but, one day as I was sweating over the tenth or twentieth draft, Al Pennyback was born.  He’s an African-American; after all, the area is predominantly African-American; he’s retired military; being retired military, I can relate to that, and the area also has loads of retired military people; and he’s a sucker for puzzles and unsolved mysteries.  Despite, or because of, his military background, he hates guns, preferring to use his wits or his martial arts ability to get out of tight spots.  He’s a widower; gives him an air of sympathy; but, has a girl friend.  The sex scenes are only hinted at.  I think too many modern mysteries go overboard on the sex.  And, the language is mostly mild. On occasion, Al or one of the characters lets fly with an earthy expletive, because that’s the way people talk after all, but you won’t find curse words on every page.

That’s sort of the definition of a cozy mystery; cosy in British English; but, I didn’t set out to write cozies.  Despite that, one of my British readers has decided that’s the sub-genre of at least one of the stories in the series, Dead Man’s Cove.  He gave it such a good review, I don’t have the heart to argue the point.

Following the advice given in most books on writing, I try to show, not tell.  I let the characters’ dialogue and action move the story rather than filling page after page with exposition or descriptions.

Now, the question one might well ask is; where do the ideas for this series come from?  The answer is – everywhere.  I read newspapers, print and online, and every edition has at least one story idea.  Till Death Do Us Part, for instance, came from an article I read in a South African newspaper on a flight from Capetown to Copenhagen a few years ago about a couple who’d come to Johannesburg on vacation and been victims of a carjacking.  The wife was killed, but the husband escaped unharmed.  It turned out later that he’d arranged the incident in order to get rid of his wife.  I changed the setting to Jamaica and was off to the races.

I’ve done two books about radical militias, Dead, White, and Blue and Deadly Intentions.  The proliferation of militias and other hate groups in the U.S. over the past several decades has always concerned me, so this was a natural.

Deadline started out as a story about scams against lonely women, but about one-third into the first draft I decided to throw a ghost in just for the heck of it.  I’m a bit agnostic about ghosts – I don’t know that they are real, but I don’t know that they’re not, so there you are.

Whatever motivates the story idea, my main objective is to write a story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page to see what happens next.

There you have it; that’s where story ideas come from. I’ll bet if you stop and think about it, you’ll find that your inspiration is similar.

13 Reasons You’re not as Successful an Author as you Should Be.

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A great video that addresses the reasons people fail as writers:

Review of ‘You Can Say That Again’

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Redundancies are all around us. If you write, no matter how careful you are redundancies will creep into your writing. You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About by Marcia Riefer Johnston is a short book listing a number of redundant phrases that are ‘the result of semi-conscious writing.’ This is an excellent reference book for any writer, whether you’re penning fiction or nonfiction. I keep the free copy that I received for review near my computer whenever I write—including this review—as a tool to help me avoid the sin of creeping repetition.

A useful guide, and here I’ll risk providing the author with grist for any update she decides to do by describing it as ‘hilariously funny,’ because, in addition to being useful, it was fun to read. Five stars!

There’s Nothing Wrong with Three-star Reviews

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Happy star

I read and review a lot of books. Most of them I love, some I like — and some, well, I don’t like so much.  I try always to give them as objective a review as possible. As an author, I know the importance of reviews to the visibility—and ultimately sales—of an author’s work.

Different people have different views of reviewing. I know some reviewers, for instance, who will not publish a review unless they can give it four or five stars. Others seem to delight in giving one and two-star reviews. Personally, if I can’t give a book at least three stars I will usually not review it. Some people view a three-star review as negative. I think that’s a mistaken view. It’s not over the moon, sure, but a three star review is saying that a book is acceptable, but it contains a few issues (typos, grammar, formatting, etc.) that detract from the reading experience.

As a writer I know how it feels to get a bad review, but I don’t think of the three-star reviews I get as negative. I take them as teaching moments. They’re telling me that I’ve written a so-so book that could have been better. If a book is on the verge of being great, but has two or three typos or grammatical errors, I’ll give it four stars. Five stars only go to books that wow me and have no issues. That’s the criteria used by Awesome Indies Readers and Reviewers which I apply not only to my reviews, but that I use when I’m doing the re-read and edit of my own work.

So, a piece of advice to young writers—especially those putting out their first book—that will help in the process of maturing as a writer: don’t let a three-star review send you into a fit of depression. Read it carefully and see what you can learn from it. Even after you’ve gained some experience as a writer, don’t expect to get all four and five-star reviews. Not everything you write will appeal to everyone. No problem. Just keep writing. Resolve to do better with each book, and let the stars fall where they may.

How to Write a Sentence

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How to write a sentence: infographic
Courtesy of: Writing.Rocks

#IWSG: Where Story Ideas Come From – 1

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup It’s that time again – time for another issue of Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group First Wednesday postings. Despite it being April 1, I’m not treating readers like fools, but I am reissuing a post I did long before becoming a part of IWSG, on where my story ideas come from. Hope you like it, and do suggest you go on over to Alex’s site to check out how you can become part of a great blogging experience.

Ideas for writing come from all kinds of places.  My Buffalo Soldier historical series grew out of a combination of inspirations. One day, I was sitting at my computer, surfing the Internet, and I came across a site about the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry on the western frontier, and I realized that not many Americans know a lot about the colorful history of these African-American soldiers and the role they played in the westward expansion of the country.

The germ of an idea was planted.  What if I did a series of short stories (more like novelettes actually) that introduced them to readers?  The more I thought about it the more it excited me.  Several years ago, when I lived in North Carolina, I was a writer and artist for a short-lived magazine, Buffalo that was based in California.  I had a regular cartoon feature, did a few historical articles, and did the illustrations for several of the magazine’s covers.

So, I already had a bit of grounding in the subject; it was just a matter of how to kick it off.  I decided to center it on a few fictional characters, with the main character, Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Carter, and show the kinds of activities they were engaged in.  While I strive to make it historically accurate, I try to avoid long lectures on history.  Instead, I insert the historical facts and incidents in through the characters’ dialogue, or short descriptive passages to establish context.  My main objective is to tell an interesting story that will keep the reader turning the page.

I can’t be sure I’ve succeeded.  Reader feedback has been limited, but what has been received is encouraging.  raise indeed.  My friend, Zimbabwean author Virginia Phiri (Highway Queen), who has read and reviewed a number of my books, also commended the series, describing them as ‘good writing, and good reading.’

I use a lot of my own military background, as well as my childhood in Texas during the 50s and 60s, to establish the social, cultural, and geographic setting, as well as trying to make the language used by the characters as credible as possible.  None of the specific incidents in the stories are real, but they’re all based on historical events of the era after the Civil War when America was opening up the western frontier to settlement and development.

I do research on a continuing basis seeking new story ideas, and to make sure that the equipment, tactics, and events have a ring of credibility.  For instance, during my research, I discovered that the US Cavalrymen, contrary to what you might see in the movies, didn’t use repeating rifles during this period.  They used the single shot Springfield because the army viewed it as more reliable and durable than the new Winchester repeaters, and it was cheaper.  Even in those days, the government was concerned about the bottom line.  I also learned that white soldiers received $24 dollars a month pay, and black soldiers $12 – which wasn’t bad money in the 1870s when you consider that when I enlisted in 1962, my pay was $72 per month.

So, you see, ideas for your writing can come from anywhere.  You just have to open all the doors and windows in your mind and let the light shine in.

#IWSG – What Does it Mean to ‘Write What You Know’?

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupHere we are again – first Wednesday, and time for another session of Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, a forum of writing advice, pats on the back, and anecdotes on the writing life to help us all get over those little bumps in the road. You should drop over and take a look at all the great writers who are a part of this group, whose mission is to ‘rock the neurotic world of writing.’

I want to talk this month about an issue that I’ve addressed before, but taking a different tack. If you’ve read any writing advice or instruction books, you’re sure to have seen the commandment, ‘write what you know.’ Unfortunately, too many people take this advice quite literally, and believe they can only write about things they’ve personally experienced. Big mistake – and just plain wrong. Thing about it. If all writers took this advice literally, we’d have no great works of historical fiction. Think, for instance of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Since she wrote of prehistoric times, there’s no way she could have directly experienced it, or even learned about if from direct sources. She studied it intensively, and then used her imagination to create a story that even years later I remember vividly. Her book was even better than the movie.

So, what does it mean, ‘write what you know’? I think it means that you should do what Auel did. Learn as much as you can about your subject, and then let your imagination do the rest. I write a series of novels about the Buffalo Soldiers of the post-Civil War era on the Western frontier. I spent time in the army, so I understand military tactics and protocol, but mainly I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about the era, the weapons, events, etc. And, I try to infuse the color of the time into my stories, all of which are fictional, with a backdrop of historical events for authenticity.

Unless you possess a completely blank brain, you can do the same. Write what you know, but resolve to know something new every day. That way, you’ll never run out of things to write about.

See you next month.

#IWSG: To Write or To Have Written: Which is More Important?

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For my second Insecure Writer’s Support Group offering of 2015, I wax a bit philosophical about writing. This is also, by the way, the second year of my participation in Alec Cavanaugh’s blogging effort. Comments are welcome, and if you have anything to contribute, check the IWSG link and sign up.

InsecureWritersSupportGroupWhen I worked in Zimbabwe (2009 – 2012) I wrote occasional opinion pieces that appeared in the independent press which was opposed to the government. Some of the more popular of those pieces were put together in a little book which was provided to schools and youth groups. The book, Where You Come From Matters Less Than Where You’re Going, was quite popular, but aroused the ire of the government even more than the original editorials had, generating weeks of back and forth over, of all things, the title. I defended the title, while the government’s propagandists attacked it vigorously. Looking back, I now realize that a better title might have been The Journey is More Important than the Destination.

I mention that episode as a digression of sorts to introduce a topic that I’ve been thinking about lately – is it more important to write, or to have written? Now, working on book number 52 that might seem like an academic or even moot question for me, but it’s not. The question ‘do I want to be known as a person who writes, or as a person who has written?’ is still a valid one. It’s in fact a question that every writer should ask – and answer.

I think I know the answer for myself. After I’ve finished writing something, except for the unavoidable marketing once it’s published, I pretty much forget about it because I’m already working on the next; and sometimes thinking about the one after that. Having written is nice, but what really drives me is the desire to write, write, write. I wake up in the morning thinking about writing. I go to sleep at night thinking about writing. Most of the hours in between are about writing. Sometimes I even dream about writing.

You see, having written is a destination. Once you’ve arrived, where do you go next, if that was your focus? Writing, though, is a journey; one that is always fascinating to me because I never know what I’ll encounter in that next sentence, paragraph, or page.

So, stop a moment and ask yourself the question: which is more important to me, writing or having written? Answer it honestly. Then, you’ll know if you’re really a writer.