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.