Friday, December 26, 2014

End of the year report

Greetings, readers! I hope this new year will find you healthy and happy.

My Gothic mystery (with touches of ghosts and romance), Mists of Seacliffe, under the pen name Rosellyn Sparks, is on sale for 99 cents on January 2-5. My first readers say it's a page-turner that kept them guessing.

I'm finishing the edits on my third Lou Cadle book (Gray--look for it in February), a 99 cent book.

Since my first release at the beginning of July, I've been doing better than I expected, thanks to my readers passing the word along to friends. I reached #1 on one subgenre bestseller list for my natural-disaster novel Quake and #20 on another for my comedic adventure-romance (under the Sparks name), Treasure in the Mountain. I've sold books in eight countries. I love entertaining, so this opportunity to entertain people I've never met is a real thrill.

And none of it can be done without you. So many thanks to all of you.

I am on twitter @LouCadle and G+ and have Facebook pages for both pen names (which I confess to never checking, but you can still "like" if you wish). If you're a Goodreads member, please remember to mark my books as read (and rate them, if you are so inclined). I'd love more reviews--the most effective advertisers won't accept a book ad until there are many reviews for it on Amazon.

Thanks for reading, and let's all have the happiest year ever in 2015.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My ten favorite books of 2014

Ten books I read in 2014 (not necessarily published this year) and would give a high rating to. I read each of these in a single day--a terrific test for me of if a book is working well.

The Thicket (Lansdale). If you don't read Lansdale, you should at least try one book, and this is a good one to start with. If you like Stephen King, you should definitely read him--not because he's usually a horror writer, but because he has a working-class-guy perspective like King's, only his prose is much better and his characterizations more layered. Landsdale might be the best mainstream American writer working today.

This historical novel, set in Texas, has elements of comedy that merge beautifully with the serious story of an orphaned kid and a rag-tag group of allies helping him find his kidnapped sister. The hog and the dwarf are terrific characters.

The Reapers are the Angels (Alden)  Literary zombie apocalypse novel, and by far the best zombie novel I've read. I usually don't like present tense narrative, and I forgave it that easily here. Lovely writing. Sympathetic main character. Beautifully sad. Usually when literary writers take a trip into genre territory, they don't succeed, but Alden does.

World of Trouble (Winters) The final in The Last Policeman trilogy, in which a giant asteroid is hurtling toward earth, and society is falling apart in anticipation of total annihilation, but one cop wants to do his job until the very end. Blending genres of apocalyptic and noir detective novels, presenting a compelling main character, relying on accurate scientific research, and offering a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, this novel was my most anticipated novel of the year and easily  makes this list.

The Signature of All Things (Gilbert) A literary narrative of the life of an imaginary 19th Century woman botanist. Not that it influenced my rating much, but I also loved the endpaper sketches of plants and other details of book design.

The Outskirter's Secret (Kirstein) This is one of those science-fiction novels that reads like fantasy, until you start to realize that some of those magic objects are recognizable tech from our own world but sufficiently mysterious to the world's inhabitants to be confused with magic. If that can be considered a subgenre, it's one of my favorites. The hero of these stories is a Steerswoman, a peripatetic researcher/librarian. If she asks you a question, you have to tell her the truth. If you ask her a question, she must answer, sharing all human knowledge as she walks along gathering even more. Except...there are a small group of guys, called wizards, who are hoarding some knowledge and technology for themselves, and the hero is determined to solve the mystery of their knowledge. Set on an alien planet, with fascinating native flora and fauna, much of which is dangerous to humans. The standout book of a solid series.

Shine, Shine, Shine (Netzer) A novel about living life to please others but waking up to become more authentic. Mostly literary or mainstream, it has elements of science fiction. One of those books that I felt was just a step shy of great, and I was rooting for it to be great. Still, a satisfying read for a literary novel, having a strong plot (as too many litfic books do not).

The Unthinkable: Who Survies When Disaster Strikes - and Why (Ripley). Nonfiction. Were I not writing disaster novels myself, I probably never would have stumbled over this riveting book.  Ms. Ripley explains through narrative example and interviews with specialists that people variously--because of hardwiring--react to disasters differently. Some naturally lead and leap into action, and some naturally follow those leaders, and some freeze. No matter what your natural reaction, Ms. Ripley points out, being educated and trained vastly increases your chance of survival. She's an advocate for allowing people more practice than we often can have access to. It's a book you should read if you might ever be in a disaster--which means of course everyone everywhere should read it.

Aimed toward children, but impressed this adult:

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon (Sheinkin) This non-fiction book, about exactly what the subtitle says it's about, is intended for middle school and younger high school kids, but it's terrific for adults, too. It won seven awards, and it deserved them. Action-packed narratives are thrilling to read. Nazis are working on their own bomb. Norwegian underground members are trying to destroy a German heavy water plant. There are Soviet spies in the Trinity Project, sneaking out messages. A secret training program for a few special bomber crews is underway. I've read several books on the Trinity project, two biographies of Openheimer, seen the TV documentaries on Enola Gay, and yet I was still glued to this. I think I literally bit my nails while reading it--despite knowing how, in real life, it all came out!

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Andrews) YA novel with a smart, socially inept male narrator and his few friends, including a girl dying of cancer. This novel seemed much more realistic than The Fault in Our Stars in how it talks about cancer's effects on teens. Despite that serious part of the story, it made me laugh aloud several times and seemed an accurate depiction of high school as I remember that torture-fest. A rare YA book for boys I can recommend without hesitation.

The Forgotten Door (Alexander) A middle-grade book from 1965 about a humanoid alien who crash-lands on Earth, gets bonked on the head in the process, and forgets important things, like how to get home. A friendly family adopts him, but everyone else is afraid of this stranger. Depicting fairly dark events for the intended age range, this one pulls no punches about prejudice, fear, and violence toward the different. As both science fiction and an allegory, it still works well today.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

For the teenage child of a reader

My final writing post for National Novel Writing Month.

From a reader's email. "My 15-year-old wants to be a novelist. Have any suggestions?"

Mostly, write, every day. But a long-term plan might be of benefit. I'll invent one, and you can adapt it for your own life.

Summer holiday from school this year, write 500 words per day, every day. If it's a great writing day, maybe you'll write 2000 words. Terrific! But if it's a bad day/you're not in the mood/something fun is happening outside the window, draw the blinds and write the 500 words anyway. Do this every day, even on the days it feels as easy as tap-dancing on a water bed. Professional writers write on the good days and difficult days, and it's a good habit to get into. Three months, 500 words a day, a few days better than 500: that's a novel draft. Don't fall into the trap of saying "I'll write one hour" as your goal. Set a word goal and write until you meet it.

The first half of the following school year, rewrite the novel on weekends, and then put it aside at winter break, however far you've gone with the rewrite. Do not upload it to Amazon KDP at this point--you'll regret it if you do. You don't have nearly enough writing experience yet to be able to produce a readable--much less a good--novel that quickly. And experienced writers know it will take more than one revision, and perhaps years of revising, to get to the finish line.

The second half of that school year, on your weekends, plan and research your next novel, read how-to writing articles online, and read how-to books from the library, 808 and nearby in the Dewey Decimal system. Read the award-winning novels from this year in your genre, too.

Hey, it's already summer again--happy times! Time, too, to draft your second novel, 500 words per day. Repeat this schedule every year right through your university years. Do not get a writing or literature degree at university. Get a degree that will allow you a decent-paying job. (No, this isn't your dad writing this post, even if I sound like him right now.) Writing is unlikely to ever be a decent-paying job, and having a degree in it won't impress agents and editors.

Six years from today, if you follow this plan, you will have six novel drafts and a university degree. Impressive! While you're job hunting (yes, you will still need a normal job), get out your completed novels and read them in order. Do any of the ideas still sing to you? Is one novel showing a spark of real promise? Or was this all simply good practice, not fit for public display? Any of these answers is fine, and even if none of those first books is very good, you may still become a successful writer in a few years more of study and practice. Every writer has had the experience of pulling out something they wrote a few years ago and recoiling in horror at it, so know you aren't alone in that feeling.

In addition to the practice you've put in at your craft in these years, you've been having important life experiences. Romances, financial woes, friends dying or betraying you, and much more l will fuel your knowledge of the human experience, and some incidents will become good fodder for future novels.

A few cautions:

Try to not need approval for every paragraph you write. It's a solitary act, writing--and that's part of its joy.

If you don't think you can take rejection and harsh critique yet, don't show your work to anyone, and particularly not to strangers online. 

Keep your expectations for becoming a professional realistic (The average age of writers on the best seller lists is over 50 years old, and most of those best sellers were the the tenth--or twentieth--published book for that author.)

The best advice is what I started with: Every day, write.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why natural disaster thrillers?

Continuing with my six weeks of writing posts for NaNoWriMo....From a reader's email:

Q: Why natural disaster novels? Isn't that sort of mean of you?

A: Yes, I suppose it is. Next?

Seriously, I don't intend to be mean, or to belittle anyone's losses during a real natural disaster. I've been in one serious disaster, and it was mildly frightening (also, I confess, exhilarating) and I got close to another two that were terrifying just to see from a distance. My losses were minor in the earthquake I experienced, but I know others' were not. I really don't mean to be hurtful in choosing this topic.

All images, Wikipedia Commons

As a writer, I like to give characters a dramatic event to deal with to show who they truly are. We reveal our personalities in crisis. We are changed by the frightening events of our lives, not by the predictable daily routine. In a big disaster, we come to understand what's really important in our lives. Our mettle is tested. To me, that makes for interesting stories.

Also, I love weather and geology. Plate tectonics is soooo cool! When I can afford a vacation, I often visit erupting volcanoes. I watch wall-to-wall local TV coverage, online, of hurricanes. Maybe it is a ghoulish side of me, but I'm fascinated with big destructive forces. I enjoy being reminded how small I am in the face of this power.

What is most frightening about real natural disasters is sometimes not the wind or the shaking but the social decay that can surround them. Everything from price-gouging through looting through people shooting at their rescuers: its horrifying and not at all entertaining to live through. Those are also the hardest parts of my novels to write. I don't like thinking about people at their ugliest. I like thinking about us at our most heroic. Natural disasters do bring out the hero in many people...but they bring out the demon in others.

In my own small way, I also hope I can subtly encourage disaster preparedness in readers. I'm a big fan of the CERT program--Citizen's Emergency Response Teams--here in the US, with classes often given by your local fire department. (I don't know, for my UK and Canadian readers, if there is an equivalent in your countries, but a place to begin to ask would be your local fire department--and drop me a line through comments if you find that out and I'll pass it along!) I've learned through these programs and hope some of my readers do, too.

I also encourage everyone to have a disaster kit--three days of food and water for the whole family, including pets. (I have a detailed post about that here). Another form of preparation is knowledge. If you live in an area that has a recurring sort of natural disaster, the more you know about it, the better off you'll be when it comes. The people who are prepared in my novels, like the people who are prepared in real life, fare better.

Mostly, of course I want to entertain with my books. But if I educate readers a little too, that makes me happiest.

Friday, November 21, 2014


The newest novel (Tornado--still not 100% sure of the title) still needs a week of work to call it a completed first draft, but I've "validated" at the official website and now can claim the right to post this little image.

It was fun to interact with writers again every day, and I'll miss that part of it. I may just join the editing/revision thread that happens on the official website when I begin to revise, for the last time, Gray (my next release) because I like the daily check-in.Writing is a solitary endeavor, and it's somehow reassuring to touch base with others battling the same challenges.

In other news, thank you to everyone who bought my novels in November. My fifth month of self-publishing was my best. At one point I was about the 30,000th top-selling writer at Amazon, which was fun to see. I'm so glad people I've never met are reading and enjoying my books. That's so much nicer than having ten books sitting on the hard drive without any friends. I appreciate every one of my readers, including my new German reader, whoever you are!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Why self-publishing?

From a reader's email: Why did you choose self-publishing?

1) It's the wave of the future. Old-style publishing is moribund. (In fact, instead of "indie" and "legacy" publishing, I often think of them as "new" and "moribund" publishing, mostly because it allows me to say "moribund," which is a very cool word.) Yes, the feel of a real book is nice and cozy, but with Print on Demand, you can still have the physical book if you want.

2) Control. Authors getting published by Dell or whoever usually don't get to choose their own typeface or cover or page layout, and often they have to rewrite their books in ways that they don't wish to. Publishers and agents can--and do--say "it's my way or the highway." I can hire a cover artist, copy editor, designer, and typesetter of my choice, and if I don't like one, I can move on to another.

3) There's a rich history of self-publishing. While I'm not a radically new sort of writer,  some self-publishers have been. Walt Whitman revolutionized poetry (form and content) with his beautiful poems. He was so "out there" for his time, self-publishing was the only choice he had, and I'm grateful he chose it. A world without "I Sing the Body Electric" would be an emptier world. I'm no Whitman, but I like being in such august company.

4) Agents--that is, the pleasant absence of them. The book agent horror stories are blood-chilling, and even if your agent does know how to read a contract (not at all a sure bet), and even if s/he can pick out a best seller from slush (the many success stories of books rejected by dozens of agents suggest they are collectively not any more skilled at this than a random selection of readers might be), and even if an agent reads her own slush (they often don't--they have 22-year-old assistants for that) she's taking 15% of the income to be a middleman. I'm in middleman aversion therapy, so no thanks.

5) Publishers' business divisions. I feel generally positive about editors, and back when they still read their own submissions, they were encouraging to my first directly submitted novel, which I appreciated, and which told me I could probably, with a good deal of effort, win my way to traditional publication. But I'm not so confident about some other parts of those big businesses. It isn't just that I get a better royalty at Amazon (and that allows me to sell my books for affordable rates), but Amazon has a transparent contract that applies to everyone (you can go read it right now) and even I, possibly the world's worst accountant, can understand their accounting reports, which offer data delayed by no more than a couple hours and payments delayed by only a few weeks, not by years. And at any moment, I can unpublish and have all my rights back without hiring a lawyer to once again own my own books.

6) Vagaries of the marketplace. For my natural-disaster novels, mainstream books with thriller and action components, some science, and a healthy dose of character development, I was told by more than one agent, "No one buys this sort of book any more. It's well-written, but I don't know how to sell it." And it's true, there was a heyday of this sort of book in the 1970's and there's a dearth of them now. But I like them. It's what I wanted to write, and I wish there were more for me to read. And hundreds of lovely people are finding and buying mine, so other people must want to read them, too. (I guess readers don't read the same rules that explain what's in and out of fashion.) I'm avoiding arbitrary fashions as decided by a handful of people in New York, and I'm pleasing some readers who also like just this sort of novel. I'm happy and I can make others happy, too, by entertaining them.

7) Ebooks are more sustainable. When you think that half of all paper books are returned and pulped, and that trees had die for that, and our finite gasoline resources used in the shipping of the raw materials and books back and forth, and how polluting are both ink and paper manufacture, you can't help but think, maybe this isn't the best way to manage the industry in the future. I love a nice musty old book, too, and I used to be a serious book collector, but even I've moved over to ebooks.

8) I'm an independent-minded cuss. There are days that I don't play particularly well with others. And I suspect this reason matters more than 1-7 combined

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Ten rules for being a writer

I'm not much for rules--certainly not in this case. So here are ten suggestions I've given in the writing classroom (in days of yore) for becoming a professional fiction writer:

1) Write every day, except when you're in surgery or labor or a coma. Set a daily quota--250 words, 500 words, 1667 words, 8,000 words, a scene, a handwritten page, or whatever fits your life and writing rhythms, but set it and keep to it until you've drafted a novel. After a draft is completed, take a break of whatever length you need (most people take at least a month, to gain some distance--you can write on another project during that month or do business). Next set a daily quota for revising that book. Then, after revising, you can take another break for your creative well to refill and, when it has, you draft the next book. (If you're one of those "I only need one day to jump back in" people, I envy you. If you, like me, need some weeks to recover, that's fine, too. We all have our own rhythms.)

2) Read books on craft. Writing is a craft. Talent is not some magical spell taking root in your brain without effort, or inborn like your eye color, but is you learning skills, practicing skills, and getting steadily better. Magical granting of talent may sound like more fun, but here in the real world, good writers work to get better. Particularly early in your writing life, how-to books will shorten your apprenticeship. Years after my first pro publication, I read Story (McKee) and I still learned something.

3) Read good fiction--the award winners in every genre, the popular books in your genre of 25 years ago and 10 years ago and today, and everything by the writers you love to read.

4) Analyze your favorite books for their craft. Count words in sentences in slow scenes and actions scenes and compare. Circle verbs or characterization by description or whatever you'd like to learn how to do better. Highlight action, introspection, and dialog in different colors. Study these mark-ups and come to conclusions about craft from them. Figure out exactly how that book became your favorite, and take those lessons back to your own writing.

5) At some point in your writing life, not when you're new, not when you're consistently being published, but in between those two points, critique other writers' works, in a real-life local group, or online if you can't find a face-to-face group in your area. You'll probably learn more from detecting others' mistakes and figuring out how to fix them than you will from listening to critiques of your own work. (And don't worry if the other writer doesn't take your advice; the point was to learn for yourself how to detect and fix those mistakes in your own work, after all.)  Switch groups every couple years, too, for the friendships that develop will make the critiques less honest. (Keep the friends, but switch groups.)

6) Don't write to be rich (chances of that happening are little better than winning the lottery). Don't chase publishing fads. Don't write to impress your professors. Write what you honestly like to read, what you can write with joy on a daily basis over many years, and have faith that your audience will find you one day.

7) A good style is one that makes you invisible, not one that draws attention to you.

8) Accept that it may take, as Gerrold says, a million words of practice writing to write a good novel. I hope it takes less, but if that's what it takes, you're not abnormal. Learning to write is, in this sense, much like learning to play the violin. You're not going to be the soloist at the Big City Philharmonic after one or even five years of practicing your fiddle. Be patient, and do your work.

9) Protect your love of writing. If you always end up broken-hearted after talking to X person about writing, or after logging 100 agent rejections, or after reading your one-star reviews on Amazon, quit putting yourself in the way of that pain. As the old joke says, "Doc, it hurts when I do this." "Then don't do that."

10) Read advice like this list if you like, but take all advice with a grain of salt. All writers give such advice out of their own experiences, or out of that of their close writing friends. Your experience may end up being nothing like mine.

Good luck!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tornado thriller progress

I'm drafting the next natural disaster novel, this one with tornadoes, during National Novel Writing Month (quite an international event, despite the name). I've crested 10,000 words, and it's really starting to feel alive to me. Three of the characters have achieved that feeling of independence that writers know so well--they seem to write "their own" dialog. I know that, in reality, it's me doing the work, but the me who is me and the me who is them have become different people, with different personalities, different ways of speaking, and different reactions. We share my head for a month. They seem to dictate many of the words, and I just type as fast as I can to get them down. It's a lovely feeling, when it's working well.

I've been researching tornadoes off and on for several months, and as I do that, possible characters start to form in my head, and the research suggests plot events. At the same time, I've taken a specific sort of student out of my teaching past, a line recorded by Connie Fletcher in one of her non-fiction books on cops that I read a very long time ago, my experience with a sick neighbor today and one many years ago, and added all that to the characters. It's like...the slowest of slow cookers, putting all the ingredients in over many years, increasing the rate of addition over the last weeks, and then you eventually you open it up and realize you have a pretty tasty meal to present to guests. Or it's a bit like planting bulbs. You put in fertilizer, bulbs, and almost forget about them, and then in the spring you have pretty flowers. Now's the bouquet-making moment, and luckily, you know how to arrange flowers because you've been studying the art for long years. Neither of those metaphors is exact, I know, but it's as close as I can come to explaining the process.

By the end of the month (barring difficulties), I'll have a new novel draft. After setting it aside to revise and proofread a completed Lou Cadle novel (Gray) and a Rosellyn Sparks novel (Nellie), and quite possibly draft yet another novel, I'll have gained important distance and return to revise this one with a cool editor's eye. Look for it at Amazon, iTunes, Nook, and elsewhere in early summer, 2015.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Naming characters

Second of six in my series on writing, timed to coincide with National Novel Writing Month.

From a reader's email:  How do you get your character names?

For first names, sometimes I hear a name in passing (called out over a grocery store parking lot, for instance), and I like it and jot it down. After I have chosen names for some characters, I use a random name generator for the rest, and I usually have to look at 20-30 before I hit upon a first name I like. (Before the Internet, I used a "name your baby" book.) When I was looking for Hmong-American names, I had to do quite a bit of research to find names that worked in both languages.

I'm not a big fan of matching name meaning to characteristics, a la Dickens. I'd be more likely to use some ironic meaning that did not match the character at all, but I've not done that yet, either. And I work to make sure none of the names of main characters in a novel start with the same first letter, so readers have an easier time of recognizing them when reading quickly.

Once I have the first names of the important characters, I back up and look at them as a whole--does it seem like a good group of names? Luckily, with the search and replace function, I can turn "Steve" into "Ralph" in a split second.

Last names are even easier. If I have a polysyllabic first name, I look for a short surname, and vice-versa. I also use this site: to find names by frequency. Usually, I want a name around 5,000-10,000th rank in the US. There are times I want a very common name or an uncommon name. I say the whole name aloud to make sure it doesn't sound odd--or accidentally create a bad joke (like Hugh Jass) when said together.

As I seldom refer to the surname of characters, I'm not as worried about choosing a "wrong" one. And if I make a truly bad guy, like an ax-murderer of children, I do an Internet search for the full name, making sure I'm not naming some awful character after a real person--or at least a real person with an Internet presence. I might accidentally still do that, but I'd rather avoid it if I can.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Time to prep for winter emergencies

If you're in the Northern Hemisphere, and above tropical latitudes, it's time to prepare for winter emergencies.

In your car:

Get a safety check and top off all fluids

Check your wipers

Make sure you have your scraper/brush

In your trunk pack: blanket, battery operated radio, folding shovel, first aid kit, a box of crackers or granola bars, flares, chains, bag of sand for traction, extra socks, and flashlight (at the very least)

Don't let your fuel tank drop below 1/2 a tank

By Andre (Ice Storm 2009) , via Wikimedia Commons

At home:

Winterize water pipes

Have furnace and chimney checked on a regular schedule

Have lanterns, flashlights, and battery-operated radios if you lose power

Don't let your larder get too low--you may end up stuck for a week at home and unable to get to grocery stores. Don't forget pet food!

A fresh trash can with animal-proof lid makes a good emergency freezer in case of power outages. You can pull it outdoors, keep the house warm with wood (if you have a stove or fireplace) and food will stay cold if kept in the trash can outside in the shade next to the house. Be careful with insulin--you want it cool but not frozen, so find a place near a window or in the basement where you can keep it safely, should power go out for a long time

Keep the needs of elderly, disabled, and shut-in neighbors in mind. A good neighbor has saved many a life in a bad ice storm

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Planner or Pantser?"

This is the first of six posts about writing as a craft, which I'll post during National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it's affectionately called--an event during which an international variety of writers, hobbyists and professionals, teenagers and retirees, and perhaps as many as a half-million of them, try to draft a novel in a month.

Am I a planner--that is, do I plan out my novels in advance? Or am I a pantser--that is, do I just come up with a character and setting, situation, or problem and start writing and see what happens? I'll answer that question by the end.
Mindmap, from Wikipedia Commons

There are those passionate from each camp who can turn this into a loud debate. The pantsers (the term comes from writing "by the seat of the pants") can't imagine how you wouldn't get bored knowing in advance what's going to happen. The planners (aka plotters) can't imagine how you'd have anything like a novel at the end of 60,000 words of unplanned writing about a character's life. You'd have 60,000 words, they admit, but wouldn't it be something of a mess? The debate can escalate into an online dust-up in no time at all--which seems a bit silly to me.

Some genres seem more geared to one style or the other. While there may be a few pantsers among classic mystery writers, I suspect it's very few. There's so much to structure in a mystery--red herrings, plants, reveals, when the actions of the various actors occur versus when the sleuth finds them out--that it'd take some genius or structural savant to keep that all straight as she invented it and make it thrilling for the reader. On the other hand, a literary novel of self-discovery might work just as well without a writing plan.

If an author is to write in a plotted genre--which includes mystery, thriller, high fantasy, space opera, adventure, western--she'll have to arrange events in her novel to best effect at some point. That could be before she starts or between first and second drafts. Some pantsers even call the first draft the "discovery" draft, for they discover while writing what the book will be about, and then they start anew on the second draft with a plan in mind, using very few of the pages written in the first draft. Arranging events within a novel for increasing tension, and in logical order, is part of the task of the novelist. Unless she's writing stream of consciousness or experimental novel, it has to be done sometime. Pantsers generally need a draft more than planners before they achieve a finished novel.

An author might not have to plot in advance, on paper, if she writes a formulaic sort of book. Contemporary romances and westerns have a structure that is easy for a genre writer to internalize. The plotting has been done at some point in the writing process (or indeed years before the writer was born), so for each novel, there's no need to reinvent that wheel. Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, re-envisioned for writers by Chrisopher Vogler here and in his book, is another sort of general plan. This can work well for coming of age stories, high fantasy, and first novels in thriller series, among other genres. It wouldn't be difficult to memorize that structure. Several screenwriters have internalized the three-act structure. And so a number of writers have a plan of sorts--even if they don't write it down in outline form--before they begin.

Planners use various methods to organize their ideas. Some draw mind maps. Some make a bullet-point list of major plot points. Some fill out twenty-page character interview forms. Some use the snowflake method, which starts with a one-sentence summary and builds it up to a bullet-point list of major scenes and then a complicated list of all scenes and then a summary of each scene, and then to the novel text itself. Others use unusual plans: they mock up a movie trailer first, perhaps, or paint a mural. Here are nine famous novels' plans. There are no rules here. "Whatever works for you" is the best advice there is, here.

Few plotters stick slavishly to their plans. In my novel Quake, for instance, I had another three viewpoint characters planned, each in a different location, but McKenna and Haruka, intended to be minor characters, won me over, and I tossed those others out to make room for the two girls. This resulted in my sticking to the events in one town, which made it a different novel than the one I had planned. Only the two main characters and the earthquakes stayed the same. Like most planners, I understood: the plan doesn't control the writer; the writer controls the plan.

Fraction of my Excel plot chart for the R Sparks Gothic, Mists of Seacliffe

And so I've revealed that I am a plotter. I use either a bullet-point plan for major scenes or a spreadsheet plan for all scenes, but I keep it flexible so that good ideas that arise during drafting can be fit in, too. Yes, I'm a planner--but that's descriptive, not prescriptive. Every writer should do what works for her.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hurricane Gonzalo

I was so glad to hear that Bermuda suffered no deaths or serious injuries from this week's hurricane. Emergency preparedness works!

By MODIS/NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 17, 2014

Happy (?) Anniversary, SF Quake

25 years ago today was the Loma Prieta earthquake--the one that happened just before a  game of the World Series that pitted two SF Bay Area baseball teams against one another. A lot of the US learned of the quake from being tuned in to the pre-game show. Al Michaels: "I'll tell you what, we're having an earth--" and the transmission stopped. A friend of mine, watching that, reported that his friend said, "What? What's an 'earth?'" And my friend, a former Californian, couldn't help but laugh; he knew.

I was in a car in the East Bay and did not feel it. You had to be darned close to the epicenter to feel it in a moving car. Santa Cruz county residents later told me stories of pulling over to check their "flat tire," and then noticing everyone else seemed to have a flat tire, too--by that time the shaking was over but, being Californians, they figured it out pretty quickly. I felt nothing until the car hit a chunk of collapsed roadway a half-hour later and my teeth clacked together as the car bottomed out. (That section of road was closed an hour later and stayed closed for months.) I began to get suspicious about the lack of lights--either fog had really socked in the area ahead of me, or something was wrong. The car radio told me what.

The Bay Bridge was broken, so getting to my flat in the city required a strange route home, but I got there before three hours had passed. Everything on the north and south walls had fallen down, and kitchen drawers on those walls had shaken themselves open. The pets weren't sure they were ever coming out from under the bed, thank you very much, but once I knew they were alive, I felt calmed. (Food soon convinced them it was a good idea to rejoin society.) Cleaning up would have to wait for lights, power, and the next day.

One of the worst thoughts in a ~7.0 quake is "maybe that was just the foreshock." It's not a happy thought as tiny tremors keep rattling your home--and I have to say, that was the worst bit of trauma I experienced, and it really doesn't qualify as trauma...just edginess that faded over the months.

If you were alive and watched TV news about the event, you'd have thought that the city burned for days. A part of one block burned for a couple hours, and yet the same image was replayed steadily to scare viewers, keep them glued to the set, and hey, now it's commercial break, and come and buy this piece of junk you don't really need while your emotions are overriding your logic. Our collective awareness of the manipulations of "news" changed in The City that week. News is new--and perhaps useful--for a few hours; after that, it's too much speculation and subtle lies. We were back at work, everyone had power, everything was picked up but the wrecked highways, and according to the news, we were still in the midst of an active disaster.

The Oakland highway collapse was nasty, and it accounted for most of the deaths. The benefit to that is highways are designed differently now (small comfort to relatives of the victims, I'm sure). A 9.0 would still take several down, but for the most part, you can drive with more confidence on California's highways than on highways anywhere else--though Japan's are at least as well-built.
Cypress freeway 10/19/1989

I learned two small but useful lessons: bolt your bookcases and china/curio cases to the wall studs, and get earthquake museum gel for your breakables, an easy ounce of prevention. If you live anywhere on planet Earth, you can experience a quake. If you live in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, California, Alaska, Japan, New Zealand, you'd be wise to be well-prepared...and to trade in your brick home for a frame one, ASAP. Seriously, brick is a bad, bad building idea for earthquake zones. Remember, 63 people died in the Loma Prieta quake; over 100,000 died in a quake of the same magnitude in Haiti. Buildings are what kill people in quakes.

In most ways, I'm glad I had that experience. It certainly helped me to make my earthquake novel more realistic. My worst trauma today is seeing it is 25 years ago--man, that means I'm getting old! ;) I hope to be around to talk about it again at the 50th anniversary.

Monday, October 6, 2014


Shakeout is a worldwide earthquake drill. At 10:16 local time on 10-16, you pretend there's an earthquake.

If you want to go beyond that, put a pair of hiking boots, with a flashlight tucked into one, and hardhat or bike helmet next to them, and put them under your bed on 10/16. If an earthquake happens at night, it's right there, within easy reach. But if you do the basic drill--at home or the office or school or the public library--and encourage others to as well, it'll take you one minute. I saw this work in 1989 to prevent injuries. No doorways. Don't run outside. Protect yourself from falling debris.

Drop. Cover. Hold on. It's simple!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

In memory of the Mount Ontake dead

As of this post, there are 50 dead, 16 still missing. The volcano continues to put out dangerous gasses and ash. The 50 cm of ash built up on some slopes will contribute to a dangerous lahar when rains come. About a million tons of ash have fallen now--and it's a relatively small eruption.

Mount Ontake in calmer days
It's dangerous to hike on a volcano. Most eruptions have warning signs, but warnings can be misread...and worse, unheeded. This phreatic eruption--there was no warning for it. What could have saved people already up there enjoying their pleasant hike when the eruption came out of a lovely blue sky? Hard hats would have saved a few (though few of us want to go hiking in hard hats). A lightweight addition to your backpack is a dust mask--that might save you from deadly amounts of ash getting into your lungs and suffocating you. But nothing can save you once you're surrounded by toxic gas.

So be careful out there, hikers in the Cascades and Andes. Volcanoes are beautiful...but they can be deadly.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hello to the UK

I wanted to give a shoutout to my UK readers, who have been buying my novel Erupt at such a healthy pace. Thank you very much!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ontake eruption

You can't always tell in advance it's going to happen. Here, hikers are surprised by an ash eruption:

I hope everyone is evacuated and okay.

Friday, September 26, 2014

New Quake cover, and thanks

The new cover is a design by James at Go on write.

And a thank you very much to my readers, who made Quake #9 on the Action/Adventure > Gay and Lesbian best seller list this week at Amazon.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I'm hysterical...and I'm wet!

Getting hammered from Hurricane Odile. In Arizona. Two hurricanes in Arizona this month? Crazy. (But now I know what a hurricane smells like. It does smell like something in particular, which I'll try to describe one day in a hurricane disaster novel.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

$2.99 for a short time only

My new novel, Quake is for sale at amazon . And elsewhere

A deep rumble in the earth...a screeching noise...and the world begins to shake, throwing people off their feet and hurling buildings to the ground. The New Madrid Fault has ruptured again, wreaking havoc over seven states.

Gale, city planner for a small Missouri river town must take charge when the city manager and mayor are both crushed. He struggles to help the townsfolk in the face of broken water mains, clogged rivers, and impassable roads, with little help from a FEMA overwhelmed by the vast destruction in metropolitan areas.

Tempers fray as food and drinking water run low and the nights grow colder. Cut off from supplies, frightened, hungry, the people of the town become more and more dangerous. Gale and his husband must somehow hold together a crumbling community and protect its citizens from their own worst instincts.

And there is much more shaking yet to come.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Boom! My imagination did not fail me

In my novel Erupt, I have several people experience the shockwave and sound wave of a volcanic eruption. I read up a lot on it, but I had to imagine it. Now this, posted this week originally on Facebook, reassures me I imagined pretty closely. Look at the cool shock wave. I'm in love with a video.

Heya, Norbert

I've been getting a drenching from the outer band rains from Hurricane Norbert for 24 hours (very little wind, this far out). Phoenix got a haboob, in addition:

A haboob, not yesterday's
I've been in just one haboob, in Yuma, five years ago. (I seem to attract natural disasters, even when I'm not actually running towards them.) I was driving. You can't see two car lengths ahead, so you really shouldn't drive in them.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Disaster kits and bugout bag basics: Your preparations for local disasters.

If I could encourage positive one change to my readers' lives, it would be this: prepare yourself and your family for a major disaster like those in my novels. Even if you live in a natural-disaster-free zone, there could be a chemical spill on a nearby railway line or nuclear plant meltdown that required you to either stay at home with the windows and doors closed and taped shut for several days, or that would require you to evacuate with your family.

In your home, I hope you have at least flashlights, a radio that works off batteries, candles, and a first aid kit. I hope you know where they are. Can you find them in the dark? You may need to, so shut your eyes and test to see if you can. But you can do much more than this.

The big disaster kit

Disaster preparedness will be slightly different depending on your most likely disaster. But no matter your locale, there should be a dedicated at-home disaster supply, at least three days' survival supplies for your whole family (including pets), gathered into one place for easy access and easy removal from a structurally damaged house. The home kit supplies are best put in a large wheeled garbage can near the exit of your garage, mud room, or back porch (in case your house is so damaged that you need to move to your own front yard, or into a neighbor's garage or a FEMA trailer, it's nice to be able to wheel these supplies along the road). The basics are:

  • Water, one gallon of bottled water per person per day for at least three days (and seven days' supply would be better), for drinking and rehydrating dried foods, and for first-aid needs like washing debris out of eyes. Replace yearly
  • Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food for all. Buy pop-top cans to avoid the need for a can opener. Never waste space with low-calorie or diet food; you need calories for survival, at least 2000 per person per day. Replace food every two to three years
  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
  • LED flashlight and extra batteries or a crank-charging flashlight
  • First-aid kit and paperback first-aid guide
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Dust masks for the whole family to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter in place
  • Matches or firestarter
  • Moist antibacterial towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal waste and food trash
  • Life-saving prescription medications for a week
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities, and to bang on metal to signal for help
  • Tent or tarp and sleeping bags or blankets
  • A hundred dollars cash per family member (ATMs might not work for awhile)
  • Paper, pencil, pen, photocopies of driver's licenses, insurance cards, and kids' birth certificates. Spare house and car keys.
  • Spare socks/undies sealed in a zipper plastic bag, and a sweater or jacket for each family member
  • A trowel, in case you need to dig "cat holes" if you can't use toilets for any length of time.

It's also good to toss last year's pair of sneakers for everyone in the bottom of the trash barrel (rather than tossing them into the trash), so that if the disaster strikes when you are in bed and barefoot, you won't find yourself walking on broken glass without shoes. (In a frequent-earthquake zone like coastal California or Japan, it's best to have a bike helmet or hard hat and sturdy boots under your bed at all times with your flashlight tucked into a boot.)  If you have small children, put a small toy or game or book into your supplies for each child, too. If you have an old cell phone, charge it, turn it off, and put it in the kit. In the US, even if it's not still on a paid plan, you can call 911 from it.

The bug-out bag

Everyone in the family should also have a bug-out bag, a backpack with a day's supply of water, food, a sweater and change of socks and undies, a large plastic garbage bag if age-appropriate (which can serve as tarp to sit on or to shelter under or with three quick cuts of a knife, as a raincoat). A beach towel can function as towel, for bandages or splint if cut into strips, and even as a light blanket for small people. A bandana can be used as washcloth, to tie back hair, as a dust mask, and for other emergency uses. A set of plastic or metal camping cutlery and a metal or wooden bowl may be useful at a temporary shelter where there is a pot of soup but they're out of bowls and spoons. A roll of toilet paper. Again, children will feel better during stressful times if a familiar book or toy is in their pack--buy a duplicate of the favorite book and leave it in the pack. Adults should also carry first aid supplies, multi-tool, knife, life-saving medications for a few days, insect repellant/sunscreen, candles and matches, a metal sauce pan, a blanket or sleeping bag, a roll of duct tape, and a length of paracord. A paper map of your county is a good idea, as you may need to strike off on foot in an unknown direction and have no cell signal to look at online maps. You may need diapers and formula if you have a baby in the house. If I had children from 5-12, I'd bring a paperback copy of a book like Little House on the Prairie to read aloud for entertainment/distraction value. (You may not have the electricity to recharge your Kindle, after all, even if you think to grab it on your way out the door.)

Bug-out backpack kits can all be tossed in an instant into the trunk of the family car, which you should always keep filled at over half a tank of gas. Or they can be worn on the back for a march out of a disaster area.

For the financially secure of you with limited time to prepare, you can even buy a pre-packed bug-out pack for a few hundred dollars. Needless to say, know where your bug-out bags are and always keep them in the same place so that, in a panic situation, you can move right to them. Can you all find them in the dark? You may need to.

The Plan and final thoughts

The other thing we should all have is a plan, including a family meeting place other than home, and an out-of-town contact for the whole family to check in with (local phones may not work, local cell towers may be overwhelmed, but you might be able to call or text out of area to coordinate with that out-of-town person). Knowing your loved ones are safe in a shelter on the other side of town will keep you from leaving a safe place to hunt for them, putting yourself and rescue workers at risk while doing so, so don't neglect this important step.

And, speaking of rescue workers, follow official advice during an emergency. If they tell you to evacuate, evacuate. (You can also evacuate sooner, if you wish and can see the problem coming.) If they point to a specific route, use it. If they tell you to calm down and stay in line, do so. If your loved one is triaged and made to wait for medical care while the more severely injured are tended to, accept it with grace. Don't yell at your emergency workers; their jobs are hard enough. Don't even expect to be rescued and taken care of at all. Imagine a disaster where a hundred thousand people in your area expect the same thing--is that going to happen? It will not--so take responsibility for your own survival needs now.

Every year on your birthday, give yourself the gift of checking your survival supplies and reviewing your family's emergency plan. Practice evacuation routes from your home and procedures for your most likely local disaster. Make a game of it for your children. Studies show the most practiced will survive at the highest rates and will feel calmer and make fewer stupid mistakes during an emergency.

This is tough to think about, I know, and the human tendency is to not think about bad news that hasn't even happened yet (sufficient unto the day, and all that). Think about it, now, while you are calm and safe. You may never need your bug-out kit or garbage can filled with drinking water and food, but if the disaster comes, you'll be grateful you prepared so well for it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Napa Quake

Best wishes go out to anyone effected by today's earthquake.

Please, everyone, take this is a reminder that you need an earthquake/emergency/bug-out kit! This is true no matter where you live. If it isn't a quake that puts you at risk, it could be a tornado, ice storm, hurricane, or nuclear plant disaster. Everyone needs to be prepared. I'll post more in the coming months on what that kit might include.

An email from a friend asked me if this quake gave me PTSD flashbacks to the Loma Prieta quake, which I experienced. I didn't get PTSD from it--unless you consider housework a trauma. For me, it was merely a big mess to clean up. Yes, I shot out of bed at the bigger aftershocks, but none of that seemed to do me any permanent harm.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bardarbunga in Iceland

You can watch the volcanic tremors here: 3D map

Web cameras (may get pointed elsewhere in future): here or here (limited traffic allowed)

Aviation alerts for Iceland here

Monday, August 4, 2014

Erupt as paperback

Erupt is available as a paperback book at, or through

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Smithsonian article on dangerous volcanoes

What makes a volcano dangerous? People

Their point is: volcanoes are most dangerous when there are people living nearby. They mention seven dangerous volcanoes, and of the Cascades picked Rainier (while I picked Hood for my novel!)

Monday, July 21, 2014

USGS has new earthquakes hazard map for US

This story explains a new seismic hazards map from the USGS. The red bit in the middle? I have a novel, Quake, set there, but the book needs one more revision before I self-publish it. Look for it around November 1.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Planning my next disaster novel

NOAA public domain image

I have two more natural disaster thrillers finished, and after a final edit, I'll be publishing those, and before the end of the year.

In addition, I'm in early stages of planning and researching for my next, a novel about a swarm of tornadoes. Growing up in the Midwest, I saw only one, as a teenager, while driving through farm country. It was alone, far from the main rainstorm, and (thankfully!) distant, a fat wedge of ominous blackness. Scared me half to death, and it's as close to one as I ever hope to be.

I'm reading some fascinating information about tornado formation and damage, and I'm going to enjoy setting a novel back in my home locale after years of setting novels in the western U.S.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

It's live!

The first book is on amazon, for sale as a kindle.

Mt. Hood in Oregon erupts with terrifying power. A shock wave slams into a helicopter carrying two volcanologists. A thousand-degree cloud of ash hurtles at hurricane speeds down the mountainside toward two hikers. Suffocating ash rains down on the campsite of a troubled teenager, stranding him and his family miles from help. Massive mudflows rush down the river valleys and into 23-year-old Chad Keppler's small town. His lifelong dream is to be a firefighter, but after he fails the physical test, that dream seems about to slip away. But he can do this one thing: wade into the swirling, debris-filled mud, to prove to himself that he has the strength and courage it takes to save lives.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Recent volcano activity

Mt Etna's recent activity summarized here in a video

International Space Station photos of Pavlof's ash here

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It's coming soon

Erupt's cover is in the works, and by summer, I'll have this, the first of my novels, up on Kindle.