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 NiƱo, 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.