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