Monday, April 30, 2012

New Blog

If you've stumbled upon this blog, congratulations. Please feel free to look around, get some basic information about me and read past blogs.

However, please be aware that as of 5/4/12, my regular blog will be located at and as of 4/30/12 my book review blog will be located at Please join the fun and see the new look.

Thank you and good writing!


Friday, April 27, 2012

Around the Globe with MIKE MCNEFF

I'm sorry this appears in this format. Blogger is having problems.

Iowa has turned cloudy and cold. Spring can't settle in properly. So, today, I picked this week's featured author and we transport to Local Grown, a coffee house at the end of the wharf in Coupeville, Washington, which juts out into Penn Cove on the eastside of Whidbey Island. The sun is out and the water is a deep blue and the trees are a rich green. Unfortunately, Mike ordered coffee for both of us, not realizing that coffee is about the last drink I'm going to have. I'll try to get the barista's attention and order tea during the interview.

1. Who are you and what makes you the most fascinating person in your city?

I guess the best description of me is I love life! I’m just happy to be here. I’m always interested in the world and the people I meet and I’m constantly learning from both. I’m lucky to be married to the love of my life and have four wonderful and successful children and seven grandchildren. I’ve had two exciting and interesting parallel careers as a police officer and a lawyer. I enjoy many outdoor activities and like to play blues on my guitar.

I am the most fascinating person in my town because I’ve walked around the world; hunted big game in Africa; been crowned chief of the largest tribe in Tanzania; dined with heads of state; invented a time machine and swam the English Channel.

And I don’t always enjoy beer, but when I do...

Did I mention I write fiction?

2. Without revealing a deep dark secret, what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?

Most people don’t know I had polio as a child and if it hadn’t been for my father refusing to listen to doctors and just going with his instincts, I would be crippled today. After I was released from the hospital, he made me exercise every day until I was no longer paralyzed. Yep, he’s my hero!

3. What interested you to become a writer rather than something else such as an international spy?

Well, as you know I did do something else before becoming a writer, but I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life and I knew I could write stories like the ones I read. I’ve written short stories, poems and essays since I was a young lad, but never with the idea of publishing them. When I retired from my two past careers, I decided to finally take writing seriously and write with the idea of getting published. I haven’t looked back.

4. Writers are readers. With which authors would you enjoy sharing dinner? Why?

There are so many writers I’d love to have dinner with, it would be a convention. However, if I had magical powers, I’d love to share dinner with Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad. They are my favorite writers, yet each had their own style completely different from the other two. They were all instrumental in igniting my desire to write and were interesting and prickly men that sometimes clashed, especially on the topic of writing. I would think it would be a fascinating evening, especially after a few whiskeys.

5. If I were stranded on a deserted island (suffering a four hour layover at the airport), why would your books be great company?

My primary writing goal is to tell a good story that is both thought provoking and entertaining. Within my stories are different layers for the reader to discover. I recently had someone tell me that upon reading my first book a second time, they saw it as a new book. I’m striving to make my future books even more interesting in that way. So, I think you can read my books several times and come away with new thoughts each time.

6. Share your process of writing in regards to: idea and character development, story outline, research, writing schedule, editing and number of rewrites.

I write about cops and I try to write at least a thousand words a day. When I start a new story, I have the basic conflict and the ending in mind. I start with the protagonist and the story develops around that character. I really don’t have any idea how I’m going to get to the end, the characters determine how that happens, which is the fun part for me. Most of the other characters in the story develop in relation to the protagonist, but every so often a character appears and I have no idea from what little corner of my mind that character came...always an interesting experience.

Research is integral to my writing. I want my characters to be realistic at this point in my writing career and the plot has to be believable. I keep myself honest in that regard by putting my characters in a historical context, so history sets the parameters of how far my mind can play. The internet is a wonderful resource for research of just about anything and I use it extensively, but I also use books written by historians and journalists. I’m also a great fan of Google Earth.

As any writer knows, the first draft of a manuscript is crap. After I finish the first draft. I go through a painstaking rewrite to make sure all the pieces fit such as timelines, character consistency and other like issues. I also will expand in areas where I didn’t make things clear and look for parts where I violated the “show don’t tell” rule. After the first rewrite, the book goes to my professional content editor, who I call the “Evil Editor.” When she has finished her ruthless work and I pull the knife out of my heart, I will do at least two more rewrites before I submit the manuscript to my publisher.

7. “I think I have a good idea for a story, but I don’t know where or how to begin. Your process may not work for me. Any advice?”

Get your butt in front of your computer and start writing. Set a minimum word count for each writing session. If you don’t do this, you will never have a manuscript to work into a book. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re writing gibberish, that’s what editing and rewriting are all about. Just get the story written.

8. I saw an amusing T-shirt the other day which read, “Every great idea I have gets me in trouble.” What’s your philosophy of life?

Don’t be afraid of life, it’s going to kill you sooner or later. Follow your dreams and do everything you can.

9. Please tell me you’re not going to stop writing. What’s next for you?

Well, I’m glad you asked, Stephen. The first draft of Shadows, the sequel to my first book is almost done and I’m looking for it to be published this summer. I’m also writing a closed case mystery that delves into the dark side of being a homicide detective and a western that explores the concept of justice. I hope to have both of those finished by the end of the year as they’re both half completed now. Then I have another mystery set in modern times, but written in the style of the thirty’s and forty’s detective novels. Lastly, I’m writing a book for writers on how law enforcement works.

10. Where can people find more information on you and your projects?

People interested in my books and thoughts can visit me in Tanzania or drop by, Twitter @Mike_McNeff and Facebook. I always respond to comments and inquiries.

Friday, April 20, 2012

When Do You Edit

Katherine Hinkson, a writer friend, and I both agree editing is probably the worst tribulation about writing a manuscript. Certainly, it is the most tedious and frustrating. One of the reasons is because we are constantly finding mistakes, even after the third, fifteenth, and fiftieth read through. Then, when the publisher’s editor(s) get a hold of it, they’re finding even more. Plus, they’re coming back and mentioning not just the fundamental errors (grammar, spelling, punctuation), they’re noticing continuity and time mistakes among others. For instance, they’ll catch the misspelled word ‘fiend’ when you really meant ‘friend’. They’ll also notice you left the door open in a certain scene, yet your hero, upon leaving the room, opens the door and steps out.

My last book went through several editing phases and then, when I thought everything was kosher, the publisher came back with highlights on all the ‘were’, ‘was’, and ‘that’ words. I couldn’t believe how many I’d used, especially in what she called ‘clusters.’

I think the best way for you to recognize mistakes and problems in your own writing is to edit others’. During my short stint as an editor for Echelon Press, I edited several manuscripts and finding errors in those helped me find errors in my stories, even while I was currently writing them.

Another interesting method to learning editing is to take a random book, and start writing it. Open to page one, grab a pen and paper and start writing from the first word in the first chapter. By doing this, you’ll see what the author is doing, how he/she is using words and phrases, grammar, and punctuation.

My second book, “Beta”, didn’t have as many problems, but only because I’ve been editing and rewriting it for nearly ten years. For those of you struggling with editing, I say, “Good for you.” Everyone should. However, we’re all in this together, so I’m not going to sit back and laugh and poke fun. Instead, I’d like to offer a few tips on how I edit. I’m not saying this is the correct way. It’s MY method and until I find a better one, (or someone offers me tips like I’m doing for you), I’ll stick with it.

For Beta, I wrote the first draft longhand. I used up a couple of pens and several legal pads. Today, I write a few stories’ first drafts on the laptop. I prefer longhand, though, because it is my first chance at editing. I can think faster than I can write. So ideas and descriptions and dialogue will form and stack up waiting their turn to be put down. Other scenes may intrude or details may come to mind for me to include elsewhere. Conversely, when using the laptop, I can type faster than I can think, so sometimes, I lose some of the ‘fine tuning’.

After a chapter or two, I’ll then type what I’ve written onto the computer. This is the next chance to edit. I’ll fix the fundamentals, and I may substitute words and sentences for others that sound better. Again, while typing, other ideas may present themselves, other scenes to include.

After I’ve typed in the entire manuscript, I’ll celebrate what I’ve accomplished. Then it’s back to the pen and pad for an initial read through, catching typos and jotting down questions for research or areas of concern. I’ll spend a period of time with corrections, then another read through. Somewhere in this process, even before completing the manuscript, I’m reading chapters or scenes to members of a critique group. I’ll jot down their concerns and suggestions, then when I’m correcting the read through, I’ll insert those as I see fit.

I’ve been trying to follow a course laid out by Todd Stone in his book “The Novelist Boot Camp”. He suggests looking at specific aspects of the story for each read through. Action, Dialogue, Sentence Structure, Setting, and others. I think this is a good guideline to follow. By focusing on specific areas you’re not as overwhelmed by trying to catch EVERYTHING on each round.

Even when I’d edited “Beta” many times, the critique group still had suggestions. I needed to tone down the brusqueness of my main character. Plus, they didn’t like the names for two of my male characters. After reviewing this, I agreed. So Jamie became Darren and Lauren was renamed Lawrence. I like them better.

Find your editing method. Get frustrated, but realize that with each correction, you are improving not only your story, but your writing as well.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Around the Globe with WILLIAM DOONAN

As the rain pours today after a week of cold temps, and seeing this is Friday the 13th, I'm looking for a little Irish luck (and possibly an Irish lass to stroll by) as I pick up this week's featured author, William Doonan, and we transport to Kilronan which is on the Aron Islands of the west coast of Ireland. We're sitting in teh pub of a bed-and-breakfast Mr. Doonan dreams of owning. It also has a sitting room with fireplaces, conference facilities, and of course the obligatory gift shop.

Bring on the leprechauns!

1. Who are you and what makes you the most fascinating person in your city?

I am an archaeologist and a college professor. I live in Sacramento with my wife and my two little boys. I write mysteries, and I’m learning to speak Irish. I’ve been studying it for three years. And in another six or seven, I’ll hopefully speak it well enough to talk with some of the people who visit my imaginary B&B.

2. Without revealing a deep dark secret (unless you want to), what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?

I think most people would be surprised to learn that I’m willing to do nude scenes if essential to the plot. Also, I collect antique 3D cameras.

3. What interested you to be become a writer rather than something else such as an international oil magnate?

I didn’t. I very much wanted to be an international oil magnate. But by the time I got to college, all the magnate classes were full. And I know what you’re thinking - sign up for a Saturday class because they’re never full. But who wants to do that? So I studied archaeology and writing instead. Maybe when I sell a few million books and make a few million bucks, I’ll give the magnate thing another shot.

4. Writers are readers. With which author(s) would you enjoy sharing dinner? Why?

I’d like to make a big pot of jambalaya and dish it out to Elmore Leonard and Vladimir Nabokov. Why? Because jambalaya is really good, especially if you use wine instead of water for the rice, and I think those guys would like it. I’d serve it with some beans and malt liquor.

5. If I were stranded on a deserted island (or suffering a four hour layover at the airport), why would your book(s) be great company?

My characters are engaging, my settings divine, my prose delightful, and my books flammable. Deserted islands get cold at night, as do airports. You’ll need to build a fire.

6. Share your process of writing in regards to: idea and character development, story outline, research (do you Google, visit places/people or make it up on the spot?), writing schedule, editing, and number of rewrites.

That’s a big question. I think I start with the characters, and then I move on to the setting. The plot kind of takes care of itself. Once I let the characters loose on an imagined landscape, they quickly figure out what needs to happen. I write nearly every day, and feel great shame if I miss two days in a row, and I do countless rewrites. Once I have the basic story down, I make sure it all makes sense and then I go back to add the verbs, tenses, punctuation, and capital letters.

7. “I think I have a good idea for a story, but I don’t know where or how to begin. Your process may not work for me. Any advice?”

Watch the first two seasons of The Walking Dead. Take notes on every scene you think worked, and every scene you think didn’t. Then cross off the ones that didn’t work and write your story along the lines of what’s left. Only don’t have zombies in your story or it will come out pretty much like The Walking Dead.

8. I saw an amusing T-shirt the other day which read ‘Every great idea I have gets me in trouble.” What is your philosophy of life?

“Be kind, and wear sunscreen.” Seriously, at some point you’re going to die, and on the off chance that there is an afterlife, do you want to spend eternity smacking yourself in the head wishing you had been kinder or worn sunscreen?

9. Please tell me you’re not going to stop writing? What’s next for you?

Thanks for asking. I’m working on getting the word out about American Caliphate, my new archaeological mystery. It was just published last week by Dark Oak Mysteries. Here’s a blurb:

Archaeologists Jila Wells and Ben Juarez are not thrilled at the prospect of returning to Peru; the ambush that nearly cost Jila her life still haunts her. But the ruined pyramids at Santiago de Paz hide an important document that would shock the Islamic world. Professor Sandy Beckham is assembling a distinguished team to dig quickly through the pyramid complex, following clues found in the diary of a wealthy Muslim woman who lived in Spain five centuries ago.

In the diary are details of an illegal expedition to Spanish Peru in three well-armed ships. Convinced that Spain was forever lost to Islam, Diego Ibanez intended to bring the word of Allah to the pagan Americans. Landing on Peru’s north coast, he learned that the fires of the Inquisition burned even hotter there than they did in Spain.

As the archaeologists brace for the ravaging storms of El Niño, Jila and Ben hurry to complete their excavations. But they’re not the only ones interested in this project. Other forces are determined that the document remain hidden. Should it be discovered, a challenge could be made under Islamic testamentary law to the throne of Saudi Arabia. And the House of Saud has no interest in sharing power with an American caliphate that might now awaken from a five hundred year slumber.

10. Where can people find more information on you and your projects?

Well, they’re certainly welcome to visit my Bed & Breakfast, but if they can’t find it, they can always reach me at

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Fight Scene

Near the end of August 2011, I attended the Killer Nashville writers’ conference. This was my third year and this time, besides meeting some wonderful people, authors, readers, and fans, I was honored to be invited to sit on a discussion panel. The seminar dealt with the subject of writing combat scenes.

For a moment I felt touch of an inferiority complex because the other three gentlemen on the panel had accumulated between them about 90 years of experience in the military and/or on a police force. However, we all contributed some worthy material, and I’ll be immodest and say feedback was positive. Some attendees mentioned ours was one of the best panels at the conference.

I was invited to sit on the panel, because of my experience with the martial arts. I’m a Fifth Degree Black Belt and instructor in the American Taekwondo Association. The private investigator, Mallory Petersen, in my book, Beta, is a Fourth Degree Black Belt. In the story, she is hired to find a kidnapped eight year girl. During her investigation, she uncovers individuals associated with a child pornography ring. She also uses her taekwondo skills in several scenes to escape her foes.

When I wrote the different fight scenes for Beta, I wanted to show off Mallory’s wide range of skills. Yes, she does carry a gun, but the weapon is not the first choice in every situation. She only shows her gun in a humorous scene where she’s threatened by two punks but does use it near the end when rescuing the girl. Otherwise, she relies on her martial arts. However, I didn’t want her to always punch or throw a side kick. Taekwondo encompasses so many moves and I wrote in different scenarios for each fight.

One of the areas of discussion on the panel was the thoughts a character has during a fight. I contributed a couple answers based on two scenes in the book. The first has Mallory fighting a larger man in an empty office that is being remodeled. After she gets tossed through the large opening slated for a window, she collides with a table. Going down with a spinal injury, she must fight through the pain because she knows the man isn’t through with her. She also has to think her way through the fight by utilizing the space and items around her. She ends up using a wooden dowel to temporarily disable her attacker and drive him off.

The second scene is near the end. Mallory finds herself in a standoff with the bad guys. She’s forced to relinquish her weapon because one man is threatening to kill the girl, another has his gun aimed, and a third is ready to use his size and brute force against her. Mallory recalls the ‘what if’ questions during her self defense seminars. “What if three guys attack you at once?” or “What if the other person has a gun?” She is faced with her own ‘what if’ situation because she knows she can’t be quicker than a bullet and is too far away to save the girl.

In my twenty years of taekwondo training, I’ve learned a lot of techniques. I’ve executed thousands of side kicks and round kicks. I’ve practiced to make my blocks and strikes quicker and more powerful. I’ve also trained with weapons including the long staff, the nun-chucks, the kama, and the bahng mang ee or single stick. I also have memorized fourteen forms from the simple white belt form containing eighteen moves to my current one with ninety-five moves. So, it’s understandable that I’ve come to enjoy some favorite techniques. Of course, I my favorites are also Mallory’s so she uses many of them in her fight scenes.

I tried to keep the action quick but detailed enough so the reader can understand the techniques. I wanted the reader to have a mental picture of the position Mallory is in when she executes a leg sweep and subsequent round kick to an opponent. Her final battle has a man on top of her wielding a knife. To save herself, she uses a technique I teach in my women’s self defense course. It’s a different explanation when showing the move to women in the classroom as opposed to ‘showing’ the action in a book. In the sequel Alpha, Mallory uses a tree branch as a long staff to defeat two gang members.

I also do not portray my heroine as a superwoman. She does suffer injuries, and not just physical ones. The case becomes very emotional for her and she experiences heartaches for the innocent. This is another area of realism the panel discussed. The good guys do get hurt sometimes and the writer should not be afraid to show it.

I hope I’ve given some worthwhile insight on combat scenes. If any writer needs advice on certain martial arts techniques to include in a story, please contact me. I’ll be more than willing to be of assistance. Oh, and please read Beta and let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Devil’s in the Details

Another early post as I'm off to see my nieces play basketball.

As a book reviewer, one of the areas of the book I analyze is writing style. I try to inform the potential reader about what type of book I’ve read.

Think about the different authors you’ve read. Besides the different genres having, or sometimes requiring, different styles, consider the multitude of authors in only one genre.

Horror – H.P. Lovecraft wrote lengthy sentences with details galore.
Stephen King writes flashback scenes with a lot of detail. Richard Laymon wrote very succinctly with just enough to get you started, then right into the scary bits.

Mystery – Robert Parker wrote quick scenes, high speed tennis match dialogue, quick action scenes. Christie’s characters were there for you to see if you knew what you were looking for. Details came subtly.

Each author has his or her own style. Sometimes detail is needed to bring the reader into a scene. Other times you’re ready to move on with the story. Details can be tricky for writers, especially during action or climactic scenes. For instance, do you remember the famous car chase in the movie Bullitt? Of course you do. Everybody does. My mother remembers it and she’s never seen the movie. Imagine if you’re reading it and in the middle of the squealing tires and the lost hubcaps, McQueen’s character suddenly waxes philosophical about a pretty billboard. Doesn’t work, does it?

Details should pertain to the scene but not overwhelm it. A friend of mine writes down the five senses and fills in the details for each scene. She probably doesn’t use all five sensory details in every scene, but if they’re important, they need to be included.

Character detail is important, too. What attributes or quirks about a character are necessary to list? If a character limps, is it necessary to let the reader know? How debilitating is the condition? Will this person be fleeing through the forest, the killer yards away, where that limp may play a factor in whether he survives? Does one of the women in your story have long hair? How important is this? Well, can you realistically imagine reading about a patrol officer with Crystal Gayle length locks?

Details bring characters into better focus. So many times I’ve read stories where many of the characters aren’t defined or speak and act similarly. I don’t want to have to guess which character is speaking in a conversation. I should be able to tell by the ‘sound’ of his voice or the movements he makes.

Long before I wrote “Beta” I did a character outline for my detective/martial artist Mallory Petersen. Nobody told me to do this; it just made sense to have details I could include. So in various scenes, I could throw in various factoids to give the reader a better feel for the character. Mallory hates coffee, but loves Dr Pepper. She drives a 1971 Dodge Dart. She likes lavender and lilacs. She doesn’t own a pet. Her gun is a North American .380. Although physically fit, she does ingest ‘bad’ food such as cheeseburgers.

I discovered a minor problem with one of the details regarding Mallory. Her height. She’s a six foot blonde. This meant any bad guys she fought who would give her any realistic competition needed to be taller. She overwhelms the average man, but I had to make her adversaries bigger and taller.

When listing details for setting, remember what’s important and how those details affect the scene. You’re not going to have a guy shading his eyes against the sun’s reflection off a shiny car on an overcast day. However, the secret agent might be able to smell cigarette smoke in the crisp winter air from across the lawn.

Develop your character outline thoroughly, but don’t go overboard and write a life history from day one. If your protagonist once stole a candy bar when she was eight, watched a dog piddle against a fire hydrant after school when she was ten, and once saw something in her mother’s closet at age twelve that she’s kept secret for decades…are those important to the present story? If not, who cares? You’re wasting your time when you could be writing the story.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Self Defense

An unexpected early post this week as I'm spending some time with family.

I conduct several self defense seminars for high school students and women, as well as the various techniques shown in my regular classes. One of the things I teach those who participate in self defense courses is to have options available to immediately utilize.

For example, let me keep it simple and discuss a basic wrist grab. After determining the level of threat indicated, the person would pull his/her wrist against the opponent’s thumb, that finger being the weakest part of the hand in terms of grip. Depending on the intentions of the opponent, various follow up techniques can then be applied. However, what if the original pull-away doesn’t free the hand? I tell my students not to keep fighting because it isn’t going to work and will only bolster the resolve of the opponent. Instead, immediately apply two or three options, usually distraction techniques. These can be as simple as a stomp on the instep, kick to the knee, raking the shin with the side of the foot, poke to the eye, palm heel to the nose, or several others. Don’t forget to go back to the wrist release because that was the original goal.

Also remember to practice various techniques so you know with which ones you are most comfortable and are easiest for you to implement. If you aren’t sure about kicking, then that method would be wasted on an attacker.

In my book, Beta, the heroine, Mallory Petersen, a private investigator/martial artist, uses various techniques when facing the bad guys depending on the situation in which she finds herself. In one scene, she plans to deliver a palm heel to the opponent’s nose, but because she has been hiding under a table, her calf muscles cramp and she stumbles during the attack. Immediately she changes her plans to a midriff tackle to bring the man down to her level before proceeding to incapacitate him.

Keep your options open and have a game plan already prepared before something goes wrong. You don’t want to have to be thinking of what to do next because seconds count in an attack.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Around the Globe with JAMES BARONI

I'm ready to post my weekly blog when suddenly James Baroni, author of The Legend of Rachel Petersen (see Brayton's Book Buzz from this previous Monday) storms into my apartment, grabs me by the collar and throws me into the transporter. Before I can recover, he flicks the switch and we're off to...

Hec if I know. Before I can tell him it'd be a nice sunny and warm day in Iowa, I find myself lounging on a private beach somewhere with the ocean before us, brie, crackers and shrimp cocktail, and a bucket of wine coolers between us, a Reggae band somewhere in the distance, and a seagull I hope won't crap on us or steal the food hovering above us. As Baroni flips away the shell of the crustacean I finally remember the usual round of questions...

1. Who is James Baroni and what makes you the most fascinating person in your city?
James Baroni is the proverbial “Jack of all Trades and Master of None”... until he puts his mind to it. Born under the sign of Taurus, I have a taste for fine food, music and the arts. Now with a paranormal novel on the market, the people in this town wonder what I will do next to top that achievement.

2. Without revealing a deep dark secret (unless you want to), what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?
I think I surprised an awful lot of people when they read in the local newspaper that I had written a book. I was always known better for working with my hands, such as remodeling houses, as compared to being a serious writer.

3. What interested you to be become a writer rather than something else such as becoming a professional wrestler?
Ever since an early age, I always enjoyed great literature and thought, “I could write a story”. To me, writers always had that aura of charm and mystique, while enjoying that dignified persona of an intellect; perhaps just in the way they mastered the language and exemplified their imagination. I admired writers while being envious of them in the way the public adored them. Having just said that, I realize now that I must have subconsciously harbored a desire to achieve their status, to be recognized as a writer, and I challenged myself to reach that plateau, which I feel I have accomplished.

4. Writers are readers. With which author(s) would you enjoy sharing dinner? Why?
I would love to break bread with the greats such as Harold Robbins, Steinbeck, Twain and of course King and Spielberg, so I could pick their brain and learn to think as they do. How do they come up with an original idea, how do they write in general. Just to be in their presence would undoubtedly be an adrenalin rush.

5. If I were stranded on a deserted island (or suffering a four hour layover at the airport), why would your book(s) be great company?
My book would take you away for the three hours it takes to read it, if only mentally. If you were ship wrecked, after enjoying my novel, then you could burn the book to cook the fish you caught.

6. Share the Baroni process of writing in regards to: idea and character development, story outline, research (do you Google, visit places/people or make it up on the spot?), writing schedule, editing, and number of rewrites.
I just start writing, page after page until I tire. Then when I start the next writing session, I rewrite a lot of what I wrote and add more pages. To some, it may seem an unorthodox process, but I usually always start at the beginning and fine tooth comb every word then add more. When I’m satisfied with the beginning couple of chapters, I’ll start the next ones in the same manner. When I feel the book is done, I read it from front to back several times, looking for any ways to improve it. Most of my characters are based on people I know or see on TV with an added bit of embellishment, or I make them up the way they need to be to fit the role in the story. I do research historical facts on Google, but I never use an outline. The story is written as it comes to me. I write when I have the time and I am in the right frame of mind.

7. “I think I have a good idea for a story, but I don’t know where or how to begin. Your process may not work for me. Any advice?”
Learn to do what works for you. Try different ways, such as an outline. However, the most important point is to put words on paper, or on the monitor; that is the basic start. Research how to write! Proper grammar and punctuation is a must.

8. I saw an amusing T-shirt the other day which read ‘Every great idea I have gets me in trouble.” What is your philosophy of life?
Live each day as if it is your last day, for one day you will be right!

9. Please tell me you’re not going to stop writing? What’s next for you?
I wrote The Legend of Rachel Petersen in a manner that left an open avenue for a sequel. Several readers have already expressed hope that there will be a sequel, which makes me feel good.

10. Where can people find more information on you and your projects?
My loving wife built me a website, which I invite you all to visit, I graciously thank you Stephen for this interview; a few of your questions were quite unexpected! Another Bartle and James, my kind Sir? The shrimp were exquisite!

Read A Spooky Ghost Story And Help Sponsor a Leader Dog!

Hello! And a big thanks to Stephen for having me as a guest on his blog!

I am pleased to announce that my book, The Legend of Rachel Petersen, has been released through Damnation Books, and I plan on donating a portion of my book’s proceeds to The Leader Dogs for the Blind, located in Rochester Hills, Michigan. This organization has been training Leader Dogs and placing them with blind people, free of charge, since 1939, and they have achieved this amazing feat all from donations.

I know all too well, both their generosity and the impact of their invaluable services. Furthering that statement, I also understand first handedly how strongly the visually impaired faithfully depend, trust, and rely on their dogs, whereas my older brother, Gene, has been blind since birth, and is on his third canine companion. As kids, my brother and I were constantly hand in hand. We went everywhere together. I was, in fact, Gene’s first Leader Dog!

We don’t get to visit each other as often as we would like, since Gene resides three hundred miles away in Philadelphia. However, the times I have visited my brother, I was impressed on how well Gene’s dog guided his blind master through the streets of The City of Brotherly Love. It’s absolutely amazing how smart these animals are. The people in Michigan do a fantastic job in training these Leader Dogs. Valor, Gene’s latest dog, is a beautiful Black Labrador Retriever, and when my brother puts the harness on Valor, that dog knows it is time to work. He even seems to enjoy riding the subway.

I live in a rural area of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and being the avid outdoorsman that I am, I spend a great deal of time in the woods, mostly within walking distance of my home. Last year, I came upon a lone grave in the woods, which inspired my paranormal tale. From years of weathering, the inscription was barely legible, it read, “Rachel Peterson, 1801 to 1899”. I changed the spelling of the last name and made my ghost character a young girl, which I feel gives the story a more realistic touch, while making the tale that much spookier.

But what is really ironic, and eerily enough, my story revolves around 39-year-old sports writer Christian Kane, who becomes outraged when The Pittsburgh Post Gazette overlooks him for a well-deserved promotion. Kane quits the Paper and moves to the country to write fiction. Inspiration flows from a grave he stumbles upon in the woods, with the headstone having the dates 1851 to 1853, which means the girl died during the Civil War. He is then compelled to pen The Legend of Rachel Petersen, a fascinating and horrific story based on the dead twelve-year-old girl laid to rest beneath the weathered tombstone. His book quickly climbs the Best Seller lists; then Hollywood makes it in to a blockbuster movie. Kane becomes rich and famous, but only to have Rachel rise from the grave, seeking revenge on him for slandering her name! Or does she?

The Legend of Rachel Petersen is available both as an e-file at Damnation Books,, or in paperback at your favorite online bookstore such as Amazon,, or visit my website, and check out my movie trailer on YouTube, However, I forewarn any potential readers, I wrote this story with a mature audience in mind; it does contain adult content, and one scene in particular may be disturbing for young readers. Two specific stories majorly influenced my plot structure, The Devil’s Advocate and The Sixth Sense; both of which are my all time favorite movies. Therefore, two unforeseen twists come out of nowhere at the end of the story and smack you upside the head.

I would like to graciously thank everyone who helps support my cause; raising a puppy to Leader Dog status is extremely expensive, averaging forty five thousand dollars per sponsored dog.

In conclusion, thanks again for having me, Stephen, and I hope everybody enjoys my novel!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Novel Evolution

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser your story, from the moment you have an idea, your book will go through several evolutionary changes. Make note of those changes because they will help you in subsequent endeavors.

I’d like to discuss the evolutionary stages of my book, Beta, and perhaps looking at the process, you may find something to help you with your stories.

Beta was supposed to be the sequel. The first, Alpha, I wrote in the late nineties. This was a time when I was still learning my craft, and while this first book didn’t fare so well at the beginning, it gave me a lot of material.

To all you pantsers out there, congratulations. I can’t do without an outline. When I have an idea, my thoughts attempt to visualize the story from beginning to end. Most of the time I have some interesting scenes I want to include, but I always know how the story ends. I don’t necessarily have all the details, but I know if the bad guy gets killed or escapes, and maybe some of the twists I’d like to include. For instance, I struggled for awhile on how I should end Beta. The question I had to answer was: Did she or didn’t she? What do I mean? Well, read the book and you’ll know.

My outline takes a few days to develop. I may have to do a bit of research to gather details on setting for scenes. For Beta, this meant driving to the various businesses around Des Moines to obtain descriptions of buildings, the surrounding landscape, and in a few instances, talking with people. I interviewed several people about their businesses. Most were receptive and a few were not. However, in one form or another, they all ended up being included in the story.

After the outline comes writing chapter one. As I move through the story, the outline will change due to circumstance about which I previously hadn’t thought. For example, Beta is set in November near Thanksgiving, which meant I had to take into account the sun setting earlier, the temperature fluctuations, and precipitation.

One of the biggest challenges I had with this story involved time. How much investigation does my heroine, Mallory, conduct during a single day and how long will each phase last. I had to take into account time for driving to and from different locations, how long she stayed at each place, and still leave time for her to attend her martial arts classes in the evenings. When the search for the kidnapped girl leads her to the Quad Cities, she partners up with a detective for a day. Once again, I had to drive the route, talk to people, visit businesses, note details. I enjoyed this part of the research because I gathered so many tidbits of information to include in the story. Time again became a factor because her day with the detective needed to last from morning until late afternoon. However, driving the route, I finished by noon. So, once again, the outline changed and I had to rearrange and tinker with some scenes.

So, after months and months of researching and writing, I finally finish the manuscript. Then I spend months and months editing and rewriting and reading to critique groups and making those appropriate changes. Fellow authors helped me to find areas for improvement. For instance, I needed to soften up my main character and add more masculinity to her secretary and the QC detective. I added a small scene to introduce a supporting character as well as a second chase scene with Mallory and one of the bad guys. Once again, the original outline changed, but for the better.

Your publishing house editors will also find mistakes and make suggestions. My editor noticed holes in at least two of my scenes and questioned me on them. Re-reading them (and how many times had I re-read everything and not seen these holes, I don’t know) I discovered how the scenes needed to be strengthened.

Alpha was a mess after I completed the first draft. However, I learned and improved for Beta. Taking what I had learned, I went back and rewrote Alpha and it is now the sequel, due out this year. It took a process of evolution to write both books. My outlines and the general plots never changed, I just added and deleted material as needed to make smooth flowing, strong, emotionally charged, and action-packed stories.

Friday, March 2, 2012

More Than Pretty Wrappings

Opening a new book is like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning. You see a pretty dust cover over the formed cardboard like shell and you wonder what’s inside. Will it be a story to excite you or make you laugh? Will the hero be fearless and the bad guys extra evil?

Many times, the book ends up being the annual Father’s Day tie. Nothing special, same unexciting characters, standard plot with a few new twists. Once in awhile, however, you do get something shiny and fresh and worth buying.

As writers, we’re faced with a dilemma, one I think is confusing and somewhat unfair. We’re asked by publishers or agents to create something new, to have a fresh voice, because as we all know, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same plots have been rehashed and rebuilt and remodeled every year, but we’re expected to slap a different coat of paint over them, mix up the action a bit, conjure up new surprises.

Then after months or years of blood, sweat, and tears, those same publishers and agents ask us, “So next to whose books would yours sit on the store shelf?” or “To which authors is your book similar?”

What? We’ve spent countless hours trying to come up with something outside the box and you ask us who we write like? I write mysteries and horror, but I’m not supposed to write in the same vein as Robert B. Parker or H.P. Lovecraft, yet some person to whom I'm pitching my story at a conference asks me which authors’ novels mine might be next to in the store? Can you say, “Oxymoron?”

So, let’s tackle one thing at a time. How do we write in a different voice than everybody else? It can start with plot, but there, you might be limited. Only so many of them to go around. You can combine genres if you think you can make it ‘believable.’ Zombie romance in space with a few cowboys thrown in for added flavor.

Setting: New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago have seen more than their fair share of stories. Try something in Alaska or rural Montana. Or strike out across the ocean to Galapagos Island or Guam. Is your alien planet a desert Vulcan or the mega-metropolis Coruscant?

Character: Here is where you have a plethora of options. Everybody knows the hard-boiled detective, but does he limp, have one eye, stands only three feet tall, was once a nuclear scientist? What new spin can you make on the leader of the religious cult? Could he be Australian or Nigerian? What personal problems can your protagonists and antagonists have? A lisp? The product of a brother/sister relationship? Dealing with the loss of a dog?

Of course, in certain genres, there are standards you have to meet, and some, like romance, you do not have much room for radical creativity. Romance publishers and readers want the same limited buffet every time. That’s okay.

In “Beta”, I tried to be different with my heroine, Mallory Petersen. Yes, she’s tall, blonde, and beautiful. She’s also a taekwondo instructor with years of training under her black belt. She’s a Sam Spade fan right down to the Bogey trench coat and hat. Many of her cases are fraught with goofiness.

I also placed her in Des Moines, Iowa, because I’m familiar with the area and it’s very rare to see a story set there.

Plot: She’s takes on the serious case of finding a kidnapped eight year, taken by child pornographers.

The second question, of how your writing is similar to other authors, can be tricky, because you shouldn’t sound like others; you should sound like yourself. There are aspects, however, you can pinpoint as being influenced by others. Is the humor akin to Evanovitch? Do you have a serial killer a’la John Lutz? Did you attend the course on short chapters instructed by James Patterson?

If you’ve done enough reading–and as writers you should be reading–you are familiar with authors you enjoy and probably are somewhat influenced by them when writing your own stories. Certainly you can learn how to improve your writing.

So, how is “Beta” similar to others? Who do I sound like? Well…I choose to let you decide. I just hope you enjoy the book and you won’t think of it as a Father’s Day tie.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lighten Up!

An early post this week as tomorrow I'll be otherwise engaged. So enjoy, smile, and have fun!

Unless you’re the prude of your generation, everybody likes a humorous story. Some light-hearted anecdote to bring a smile or a gentle chuckle.

Many authors will insert humor into their stories, even if the subject matter is serious or the tone is dramatic. Humor gives the reader a rest, a small break before diving back into the deep end. My favorite example comes from the Hitchcock movie “Topaz”. The entire movie concerns spies. However, the one small moment comes near the middle when Hitchcock makes his appearance, as he did in all his movies. It’s an airport scene and Al is being pushed in a wheelchair through the terminal. Suddenly, he stops, stands and walks off camera. It’s one of those scenes where you stop for just a second and think, “What just happened?” The scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it’s mildly funny because of its ironic inclusion.

Of course, many books are purposely humor based. I cite Evanovitch’s Plum novels and Barry’s “Big Trouble”. They’re written to be cynical or slapstick and designed to show the corny side of life.

Many private detectives (and those non-detectives who end up being one anyway) have a lighter side. Many are cynical, ironic, or sarcastic. How many detective novels have you read where the hero mouths off to the bad guy even in a life threatening situation?

When I set out to write stories featuring my private investigator / martial artist, Mallory Petersen, I wanted to add a humorous side to her. I didn’t want her to be a hard-boiled, world weary, life’s-a-drag kind of person.

Mallory is tall and blonde and beautiful. She’s an exceptional martial artist who cares about her students and her clients. She puts her all into making sure her taekwondo school has the best training and while investigating her cases.

I didn’t want Mallory to handle only the serious cases. She has to have fun. So, I made the majority of her clients and crooks come from the nuttier side of life. In “Beta” she sets up surveillance equipment to find out who is stealing snacks from a local bakery and finds the thief doing some outrageous things. Her tailing of a high school girl’s boyfriend has her discovering his less than stellar intelligence. When she spies upon a philandering husband and his mistress, she snaps pictures of an interesting dichotomy between the parties in question.

Many of the bad guys and minor characters Mallory encounters throughout the book are not the typical thug with a weapon and a bad attitude. The gang banger has an unusual handle. The armed robber dresses in drag. The hygienically challenged informant she cons using her feminine wiles. The flustered receptionist. Even in her taekwondo she finds a stray bit of humor. Her instructors are trying to discover which child is urinating in the locker room’s waste can.

I purposely set out to include humor in “Beta” to temper the subject matter of the serious case. I’m not giving away spoilers by mentioning the kidnapped girl in the story is subjected to the hell of child pornography. This is a heinous crime and I hope I’ve given enough details without causing too much revulsion. I want the reader to become emotional about this child and about Mallory’s feelings and frustrations during her search for her. But I give the reader a rest by putting Mallory in a few humorous scenes.

Humor can be difficult. There is a temptation to steal from comedians. I couldn’t resist using an old joke regarding the philandering husband. However, the urinating taekwondo student and the ditzy receptionist are based on actual incidents.

When you’re writing humor, look around you. You don’t necessarily have to make up a joke or grab lines from professional funny people. Life brings us humor nearly every day. From the politicians to klutz in the part to Aunt Mary getting beaned by a water balloon.

By utilizing humor, you may find your story stepping up to the next level, and hopefully your readers’ enjoyment will too.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Fear, Part 2

A soft thud in the night. A creak in the hallway outside your bedroom. A lonely road cutting through a dark forest. All of these can cause fear. However, fear need not be felt in these creepy, eerie locations. One can experience fear when going in for a job interview, on the first day of college, or even writing your first novel. We fear the unknown. What made the thud upstairs? The creak in the hall–just the house settling or something else? What if the car stalled on the road? You wonder if you can present yourself professionally to the prospective employer or if you'll make friends on the new campus. Writing is no different. It's a scary process. I'm not even referring to writer's block, but it, too, can be an unsettling experience.

I remember somebody turning the word fear into an acronym. False Evidence Against Reality. Basically, what that means, is what happens is usually totally different than what was originally imagined. I've experienced this countless times in my life, usually when asking a woman to dinner. Okay, my fear about their rejection usually held true, but never in the way I imagined it.

There are many aspects of fear in writing. I wonder if what I write will sound stupid or even comprehendible. Will I be able to finish the manuscript? I have a story I'm working on at present that I just can't get through. I want so much for it to be a decent story, but I'm afraid I can't make it so. Then, after I've polished it up and edited the stuffing out of it, I fear I won't find a publisher or an agent. I've pitched my stories to several at different writers' conferences and afterward I feared their rejection. In 2009, my fears dissolved when two of my stories were accepted. However, a bigger fear loomed. No, I'm not talking about the dreaded red ink from the editor (although that turned out to be a bear to deal with). I'm speaking of marketing. See, I've never been good at sales. I worked radio advertising for a couple of years and hated every minute of it. I feared rejection. I dreaded walking into businesses and the owners sending me right back out again a couple of minutes later. Sales are tough. So are marketing and promotion which are a pre-sale type of operation.

Fortunately, I've made contacts with various people at these writers' conferences who have been invaluable to me and have shown me my fears (like usual) were unfounded. Actually, I've come to enjoy the promotion. Building a website, joining groups of writers on various other sites, blogging, conducting interviews with authors and media. Distributing business cards, bookmarks, and promotion postcards. Sure, I've been frustrated when I run into apathetic people (and yes, I'm still rejected), but for the most part promoting my eBook, Night Shadows, has been an eye opening experience, but a enjoyable one.

You'll find loads of fear in Night Shadows. Lots of spooky fun, too. I've found the writing, editing, and the promotion of the book full of anxiety, a little fear, but, for the most part, great fun. If you're planning on writing your own story one day, do a little planning and strategizing before you start the process. That way, you won't be so afraid.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fear, Part 1

As the first anniversary of the publication of Night Shadows approaches (February 16), I want to present two blogs regarding fear.

I once read an article stating how fear is an acronym for False Evidence Against Reality. The article went on to discuss how most fears aren’t as devastating when the reality of the situation is revealed.

For instance, I fear change. Change in my residence or employment usually produces a queasy feeling in my stomach. However, in the face of reality, the new apartment or job isn’t as bad as expected.

Many of us experience fear in one form or another and at different intensities. Anything from a mild anxiety about an upcoming dinner date to a long suffered phobia of spiders or heights. Tony Shalhoub portrayed a man with the ultimate in fears in the television series Monk.

Fear, however, is a bit different from being scared. Fears can be faced and, in many cases, overcome. The phobias some people have can be dealt with through counseling or outright confrontation with the fearful situation. Scared is heightened and lingering fear. Scared is knowing potential danger is imminent. The teenage camper, having seen her mutilated friends strewn about the woods is truly scared of what’s behind the door of the lonely old cabin she’s discovered. She knows the killer stalks her and is watching, waiting.

For me, scared was driving seven miles on a curvy, hilly, ice covered road with steep ditches on either side and no way to turn around. As a child, scared was being stranded on the other side of a large lake with no way to return except for trekking another hour back, knowing the trouble I’d be facing.

Horror movies rarely scare me. Sure there are moments that give my heart and stomach a short-lived jolt, but they’re rare. The twist at the end of The Sixth Sense didn’t really scare me, per se, but left me feeling very weird since, for me, Bruce Willis being dead was completely unexpected. Most horror films, though, are various versions of the same theme: the serial killer or mutated monster slaughtering the wayward young or ghosts, vampires, or other supernatural entities doing the same.

Radio and literature hold more potential to scare because they force you to use your imagination. One of the most famous radio incidents creating a mass scare was Orson Welles narrating the alien invasion of War of the Worlds in 1938.

I’ve collected hundreds of horror novels throughout the years and have been scared by only a few. Not very many have left a lingering sense of dread or maintained the imagination after the last chapter. There have been rarities leaving me wondering, “What if…” or “What would the next scene be?” because there was no real resolution in the story.

H.P. Lovecraft was a master at creating those lasting feelings for me. He wrote some truly scary material and years passed with several re-readings of a few of his stories for me to understand the attraction to his stories. Rarely did he show you the monster. One of his best stories, in my opinion, At the Mountains of Madness, draws you in so well with so much detail and description, you feel that you are right there with the travelers discovering an ancient vanished civilization in the Antarctic depths. When they flee the scene, you are desperately wanting to know what the main character saw when he looked back over his shoulder, what awful, nameless thing destroyed the mind of his partner…but Lovecraft doesn’t tell you. You are left wondering…wondering what could it be? For me, I loved that scared feeling imagining there really were super tall mountains at the South Pole hiding all sorts of unknown creatures.

I hope I’ve created some scary moments in my book, Night Shadows. I waited until later in the book before the monsters were ‘seen’ and known. Several readers have shared the fact they really didn’t want to turn out the lights the night after reading the story. I hope I have also left people with a lingering imagination, a sense of ‘what if?’

What scares me scares many people. The unknown, the possibilities in the unknown. Also the experience you have when–

Oh, crap! Don’t you dare sneak up on me and tap my shoulder. You nearly scared me to death.

Friday, February 3, 2012


I’ve been a member of several writers’ critique groups over the years and I’ve come to realize a major factor in each group’s downfall has been the lack of writers. This may seem quite logical, but it’s true for any group. Knitters, martial artists, foreign language studies, puzzlers…if you are a part of a group and aren’t involved in the activity, the group suffers. A few more lackadaisical people and the group collapses, becomes less fun, or has less worth for those who are serious.

When I first started attending a critique group, there were about 15-20 or more who showed every week. I had heard many more used to attend. Why the dropout rate? Probably it started with something like this. “Sally, do you have anything to read tonight?” “No, I’ve been too busy this last week to write.” “Okay, but we really want you to read.” “I’ll try to have something next week.”

Well, as Yoda once said, “Do or do not do. There is no try.” You’re either writing or you’re not. So, the attendance dropped. By the time I stopped attending my first critique group, we were down to a core of about four or five with maybe two of us reading per week. It was a waste of my time to read for others who weren’t writing. I worked hard to have something every week, either a short story or another chapter from the ongoing book. I ceased going to the meetings not because I stopped writing, but because others did. I wasn’t going to stay with a group in which two or three people read and the rest of the time we just chatted. Plus, I didn’t feel those who weren’t writing, who weren’t keeping up with improving their craft, had justification to critique my material.

So, is it lack of interest or distractions that keep people from writing? Television, radio, Internet, phone, mail, email, kids, pets, spouse, something interesting out the window…all are part of a large group of distractions. I’m not perfect and my attention wanders at times. Much of my writing is done at a facility where people could come in at any moment. They’re distracting. I understand distractions and I’m willing to let a few excuses go by. When they become consistent, however, then I know the person really isn’t serious about writing.

In a recent interview I mentioned my ideal place to write. I said I wanted to be on a deserted island with no phone, no TV, no radio, no Internet, no people, with enough food and water to sustain me until I felt like rejoining society. Serious writers will make time to write, or will set aside a portion of the day or week and tell the rest of the world to leave them alone until a certain period has ended. Behind a closed door, with the TV, Internet, and cell phone turned off. If the radio is on when I’m writing, it’s tuned to a classical music station.

Don’t let your writing be a distraction to your writing. What I mean is, don’t stop after every sentence or chapter to go back and edit or change things. So many times in those critique groups I heard a repeat chapter one from a few people week after week. They took home our comments, did a rewrite, then came back, took home more comments and did another rewrite. The cycle continued. We never heard chapter two. Soon, they either gave up or decided the particular story wasn’t working out, so they switched to a new story and brought in a new chapter one.

Another example of a writing distraction is too much preparation. I realize every person has his or her individual writing style. Outlines that may take eight months to picking up a pen and starting in on something without a precise destination in mind. Whatever works for you, do it. However, if you are a type who sets up character profiles and setting profiles, don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. There must be a time when you start writing the first sentence.

One more example. Finish a story. Recently I have found myself falling into the trap of starting one story, getting partially completed, then jumping to another story, then a third, and I discovered I wasn’t completing a project. When I realized my problem, I stopped jumping around and set myself a goal to finish a particular story by the end of the year with at least one or two rewrites.

I’m not sure how long I took to complete “Beta.” I do know I did a few rewrites, character tinkering, scene additions, etc. Meanwhile, I was writing other stories. However, I never forgot I still had a completed story to ‘finish’ in the sense of polishing it up even more with each submission rejection. I’ve worked long hard on this book and even when correcting edits, still found it emotionally stimulating. I’m glad I persevered, and didn’t allow distractions to keep me from my goal.

Let your writing be your distraction from everything else, not the other way around.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Creating Character Quirks

When you hear the name Sherlock Holmes, what are some of the things you imagine? The distinctive deerstalker hat? The curved pipe, maybe a magnifying glass? It’s a classic image, somewhat created by those who portrayed Holmes on stage. Maybe some remember Holmes playing the violin during periods when a case particularly perplexed him. Or maybe his storing his tobacco in a stocking. Possibly the true fans will remember his use of cocaine.

Nero Wolfe brings to mind a large man with an aversion to women’s tears, his collection of beer bottle caps, enjoyment of fine food, a slight tilting of his head in acknowledgment or emphasis, often saying “Pfui!” when refuting some absurd point, his fondness for yellow pajamas, and of course, orchids.

An affinity for tweed, knitting, and gardening–besides solving crimes–are aspects associated with Jane Marple.

Above is just a sampling of memorable characters. They’re remembered throughout the years because each has one or a series of aspects that distinguish him/her, their own personal ‘quirks.’

In some ways, the creation of characters is easy. You have a private detective who solves crimes. This person has brown hair and brown eyes, and usually wears jeans and a T-shirt. See? Easy. However, this person is pretty bland and not at all memorable. It’s up to the author to add ‘spice’ and ‘life’ to the character. For instance, the detective stands only four feet tall, drives a motor scooter, owns a St. Bernard, likes Chopin, and has an addiction to Snickers. Or maybe the woman has only one hand, is constantly haunted by nightmares of an abusive mother, owns a crossbow, and paints her apartment green.

As long as the author is able to bring the character to life and stay ‘true’ to his/her creation, then maybe people would be interested in reading about this character. It’s up to the author to give a character something to make him/her different from everybody else.

Think about the character envisioned by Andy Breckman and David Hoberman and given life by Tony Shaloub. They created a detective with over-the-top obsessive disorders. Adrian Monk feared milk, wind, sausages, tossed salads, and went so far as to dispose of a single tissue by sealing it in a plastic baggie, then sealing that baggie in another baggie. Somehow, the idiosyncrasies worked and the television character became one of the most loved.

Sometimes, characters are defined by other characters. This is especially true with Stephanie Plum. Yes, she has some quirky aspects to her, but a lot of the humor and ‘character’ comes from Lulu, Maretti, Grandma Mazur, and Ranger.

Authors need to dig deep to find the unique pieces and parts for a characters, whether they want the person to be funny or strictly serious. When writing a story, the characters will often times ‘speak’ and let the author know how to form their personality. Other authors may want to do an intense character outline to define a particular figure in the story. There are many books about developing character, and some may find them useful. What each author must remember, though, is not to be bound and limited by those books. Each must find his or her own path and find whatever works for developing characters.

Who knows, maybe today somebody is creating another memorable character to stand beside Sam Spade, Elvis Cole, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, and Pronzini’s ‘no name’ detective.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Study in Character

Many things I've learned over the years are self taught. When I worked as a graphic designer at a local newspaper, I was unfamiliar about the software being used to create advertising. Slowly, through the months, I discovered new things to be done with the program others hadn't.

So it was with writing. I didn't know anything about outlining, or formatting, or even too much editing, but throughout the years, I developed a system that worked for me. When I started writing my first action mystery, I knew what type of character I wanted as my protagonist. Since, she has developed into a deeper character with more flaws and more personality. At the time, though, I sat with pen in hand and wrote a very basic character outline. Along with her general description, I listed her favorite color, flower, food/drink, car, clothing, music, books. Nobody told me to do this and I didn't read any guidelines out of a how-to book. This just made sense to me to do this to better understand about whom I was writing.

Years later, I read about a more in-depth character outline. This included background information, childhood memories, past employment, etc. Also included was a guideline to understand the character in that particular story. I liken it to actors preparing for a scene. What's their motivation? What's their goal? What are their obstacles? How are the obstacles overcome? These series of questions can be used for every character in every scene and for the story as a whole. However, the trap into which some writer may fall is taking this too far. I know a writer whose character description included almost soap opera like dimensions. While this may be fine to jot down, do those miscellaneous factoids have any bearing on the present story? If not, I think time has been wasted when actual writing could have been done.

One of the difficulties I encountered was in the physical description of the characters. Brown eyes, dark brown hair, and medium build are so common, and I get bored reading about the same person in many books. For me, I had to develop a mental image of each character and I based the looks on various people I knew whether they be friends, classmates, or people in the public eye such as movie or television actresses.

Mallory Petersen, in Beta, was an easy character to develop. Basically, she is me as a female, with a little more flair, better looks, and better martial arts skills. I just took many of my traits, likes and dislikes, and used them to create Mallory. The drug lord in the story has the suave looks of Powers Booth while one of the cops takes his attractiveness from Nicholas Cage. One of the bad guys has an avian visage. Many characters were drawn from actual people I encountered while doing research. The stern secretary. The flustered receptionist.

For my first book, Night Shadows, background plays a large role for each of the two protagonists. Harry Reznik is married to an attractive woman and feels lucky to have her for a wife. He attended almost three years at the university unable to decide upon a career choice…until he met his future wife. She helped to develop his character throughout their marriage. For Lori Campisi, her background is mystery, and her struggle against amnesia and the revelations are part of the story. I knew the personality I wanted to portray and had a mental image of her features. The medical examiner has, "Tom Brokaw handsomeness." The Lieutenant is drawn from a model in a magazine. Reznik compares FBI Agent Campisi to Spock because of her control over exhibiting emotions.

Good authors will bring their characters off the pages and put them into the reader's mind's eye. Of course, every person's conception of a particular character may be different than another's, but differing views are the beauty of imagination and what make the books enjoyable.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Few Views on Editing

An early post this week as I'll be gone tomorrow.

I just wanted to share how others feel about editing. These comments were gathered after seveal people read another blog pot about editing. I saved my comments for the end.

I've been told that spelling capability, or lack of it, has been proven, in brain studies, to come from a certain small part of the brain. For that reason, I have no judgment about poor spellers, only judgments on the writing itself. I, for one, wish to hell I'd been pushy enough to lean on literate friends (once again) to proof my book. I was too cheap to offer to pay them (I'd already paid two of them to read earlier drafts for structure, style, and logic. They gave me excellent advice). I proofed myself. Proofing is something a writer can't do alone, not with 80,000 words to go over--nor can spell check do it. If I get another crime novel done, it's going to get proofed by at least one expert and I'm going to have to pay them. Meanwhile, I get to read my book and wince when I see my typos.
- Clark

I believe in submitting the best of your best and it's not up to an editor to re-write your book. Yes, there will be errors, but poor spelling and mistakes in verb tenses are unacceptable. I look back over ten years ago at some of the work I submitted and understand why they were rejected.

Scene structure, POV and storyline have to be close to right on in the submission.

Having said all of the above, I'm not an editor but know I have to get their attention if I want my book published. Catching them in the beginning is a must. Writing so they want to read more should be a goal. And finishing strong is a signed publishing contract. That's my 2 cents.
- Bob

Spell check and computers have opened the typo floodgates. Companies are no longer using skilled typists who are trained to catch and correct errors. Now everybody has a computer on her desk and poorly trained managers compose pages that a secretary once handled.

Spell check won't catch the wrong word spelled correctly. In proofing the galleys of my mss., I found some places where I had the wrong word (complimentary vs. complementary). Very different meaning!

And computers are not easy to read. My home computer's default is to make the type tiny and the page small. I can't see the typos. I have to manually increase the font size and the page space so I can read (that's why I missed errors the first time around). I don't know why computers are set up only for people with crystal sharp vision.
- Sally

I don't buy that it's acceptable to be a writer who's insightful but a bad grammariané/speller. If this is your craft, you have to master both imagination and good grammar/spelling. Suppose you were a brilliant doctor who understood the concept of heart surgery, but flubbed the technicalities of the actual operation? Same principle.
- Sunny

There are a lot of reasons for bad spelling, and "seeing through to the writer's mind" is pretty lame. What is that, the Freudian School of Editing?

A writer has an obligation to make sure his spelling is correct. Period. Whether he likes wordplay or not.

There are on-line dictionaries up the yin yang, so there is no excuse that the Webster's may be out of print, or that the dog ate it.

Even worse than bad spelling is poor formatting. If the publisher can't read it, neither can anyone else.

If you are serious about writing, then right it before you submit.
I'm an excellent speller.
- Melanie

Hardest thing for a writer is self-editing because she knows what she meant to say and sees the words as if they do indeed state that. Unfortunately, not always the case. As for those little underline things in spell check, (which the program says is two words although one often sees it as one) they have a tendency to become invisible.
- Carol

I recently read one book where either the author didn’t edit or the publisher’s editor wasn’t vey good. The book contained scores of problems with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic sentence structure. I emailed back to the magazine (I was supposed to review this book for them) and asked if this was an ARC. The woman said no, it had actually hit the shelves. I ended up requesting not to review it because, frankly, I couldn’t find one thing I liked about it and on which I could positively comment. I couldn’t find one slight reason to recommend it. (I did review it for my blog just as an example of variety in my ranking system.)

I spoke to several people about why we sometimes find mistakes (obvious ones) in books by successful authors. Because they have proven successful the publishing house editor doesn’t work hard enough to catch the mistakes or lets them slide because they know people will buy the book nevertheless.

I’m not sure how it used to be twenty, thirty, forty years ago but nowadays you hear from everybody that the author needs to be able to do at least minimal editing before submitting. Why this needs to be said, I don’t know, because to me, the idea is fairly obvious. Maybe not to some writers.

We’re human and on occasion, things will slip by both the author and the editor and the publisher. They just don’t get caught for some reason. I’ve seen them, you’ve seen them, not a big deal most of the time. However, writers should know basic spelling. Again, this seems an obvious concept. I get to typing too fast and misspell scores of words by accident.

Usually, the spell correct catches them, sometimes not. Sometimes I use a word like ‘taekwondo’ and the spell check binks it and wants to change it to ‘teakwood.’ I’ve finally convinced my dictionary, taekwondo is a real word.

So where do you put the blame? Are you going to leave it up to the author to catch EVERYTHING before you consider accepting? The author isn’t perfect. Doesn’t the publisher and its editor bear some responsibility? I don’t know, I’m just asking? On my last two books, when I received my ARCs I found errors both the senior editor and the publisher missed. Obvious blatant errors. So am I to blame for not catching them earlier, too? Sure.

I did a blog on ‘it’ a couple years ago so when you brought up the word, I had to smile because I started wondering the usage of the word years ago. “It started to snow.” “It’s four o’clock.” Well, what is ‘it?’

I now go back to read individual chapters and, eventually, the entire book, aloud, so I catch every word. I still miss stuff, sure, but after going through three people editing it, I figured I’d better make an effort to minimize the number of mistakes earlier.
- Stephen

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Note on Editing

Have you ever seen the drawing of a pyramid of triangles in which you're supposed to count the number of triangles there are in the picture? Some people count the obvious smaller individual triangles, but miss the fact that the way the picture is drawn, there are bigger triangles throughout.

I think editing is similar. There are so many areas of editing, you may not be aware of where they show up and what you are doing when you do it. Let's look at a few instances.

You've made the decision to write a story. Boom! You've just done your first edit. You've made a choice in your life. You've edited your life and you will keep doing so every minute you take to develop that story. You edit when you create characters, giving them personalities. You edit when you create an outline (for those who do and those who don't still make decisions to move the story in a certain direction), deciding a timeline and the sequence of events.

Editing is not just done after you've completed the story, or when some publisher's editors splash it with colors highlighting the mistakes and suggested changes. Writers are editors and they have to be.

I love writers' critique groups and have been involved in three throughout the years. Each has had good and bad points in structure and operation but one of the problems I've seen in all of them is in regards to the writers themselves. A person brings Chapter One of a brand new story to the group for reading. The others listen then give their opinion on the strengths and weaknesses in the story. The person takes the story home and does a rewrite, brings it back to the group, hears more critique, then takes it home and does a rewrite…and the cycle continues. After a few rounds, someone will almost certainly suggest the person moves onto Chapter Two. Unfortunately, he/she cannot get past trying to perfect One. The story never gets written and either the person gives up or tries another story, falling into the same pattern.

Writers have to learn to work through each chapter until the story is completed. Sure, listen to the critiques, save the notes, keep in mind the suggestions, but keep writing something new until you've reached the end of the story. Then go back and rewrite.

Writers also have to know the rules. Grammar, punctuation, and of course spelling. Do not rely on spell check. You may not catch all of the mistakes (and believe me, you won't), but you want to present to the publisher/agent the best product you can create.

One of the fun ways to frustrate yourself is something my publisher and editors have agreed upon doing with each story we receive. When you think you've gone as far as you can with your self editing, go through and highlight every 'was', 'were', and 'that'. Then, go back through and eliminate all but the most necessary usages.

I've met authors who re-read scores of times and others who can whip out a decent product after only a few rewrites. There is no rule. You find what works for you. I wrote longhand and my first edit came when I transferred the pages to the computer. Then I'd print out the entire manuscript, grab a pen and a notebook and read through it marking corrections and scribbling changes for specific areas. I think it's where I learned a lot of my editing skills.

In early 2010, while waiting around for my story Night Shadows to run through the editing process, I exchanged emails with the senior editor and, to make a long story short, within about six weeks or so, I was hired as an editor. Now this surprised me, because I've had no official training, didn't take any college courses. I must have done very well on the 'test' story to satisfy the powers that be. Anyway, since that time, I have learned so much and I can pass on my knowledge to other authors.
I loathe working through the edits on my books. I've gone through several rounds of corrections and changes with Night Shadows, each one more excruciating than the last. Long hours until my brain goes fuzzy, but I'm learning. Editing others' material can be a horrendous job especially if the manuscript hasn't been polished by the author. However, it is a learning experience, because once you've read others' mistakes, you catch yourself making similar ones in your own projects.

And that's part of what makes writing so gosh darn fun.