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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Oh the Horror!

Why is horror easier to write than science fiction or fantasy? Some may disagree with my premise, but as a writer of all three genres, I find horror is easier because we write what we fear in order to exorcise those demons within us. Everyone has fears or phobias. I ran across this list of phobias.

I’m sure there are more, including a fear of lists of phobias. From this list, how many do you have? I’m afraid to tell you how many I identified with. (Is this another phobia?) Some people are afraid of the dark or of thunderstorms or of writing. (Oh the horror!)
Science fiction requires some scientific basis for the facts proposed. The more esoteric the subject, the more difficult it is to explain to the reader without it becoming a textbook. Science fiction that has no rules is fantasy, not science fiction. There are some truly great science fiction writers out there – David Brin, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov – whose works are intelligent and entertaining. Fantasy needs rules as well, though they can be completely arbitrary as long as they are consistent throughout the book, such as rules of magic a la Harry Potter. It requires a lot of research and planning to pen a successful fantasy or sci-fi novel.  

Horror, on the other hand, allows the writer to dig deep into his/her psyche and dredge up fears and emotions that frighten both the writer and the reader, utilizing emotions and moods m ore than facts and figures. Often horror writing is cathartic. As Stephen King said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” He should know. He has single-handedly made Maine a place to avoid. (Him and Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote). God knows we see enough real-life horrors every day on the news or in the headlines. Why should we seek more morbid succor in horror novels?
Novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein have frightened and intrigued readers for centuries, as well as spawned complete subgenres of writing. Their longevity and universal appeal are their themes of life after death. People fear death and the unknown that follows. They also fear the manner of their deaths. Most would rather die of old age in their own comfortable beds. A few talk about going out in a blaze of glory, but given the opportunity, few choose this method. Reading about gruesome deaths both repels and attracts us. We ask ourselves what we would do in similar circumstances. Would we cope with death or the threat of death as well as our hero or heroine? Would we look into Death’s eye and spit in it or close our eyes and cower?

[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”― Clive Barker
Reading or watching horror fulfills a fundamental need, the desire to witness death from afar. Our history screams at us with the grisly reminders of our mortality – the Black Plague, volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, the Spanish Flu, any war. We need only pick up a history book. Why then the horror novel?

Horror novels fill a void in our soul, a gap in our racial memory that forces us to seek out such literature, as one desires candy for a sweet tooth. We yearn to be frightened, to be reminded of our own mortality. Whether deadly creatures, supernatural forces, serial killers or alien hordes, it seems the more frightening the better. Right now, vampires and zombies are hot topics. Next year, who knows? Maybe deadly accountants rampaging toddlers.
I see the horror novel sustaining this trend into the future, certainly as long as new writers, such as Jonathan Maberry, Tim Lebbon, Weston Ochse and John Passarelli are around. I aspire to be among their ranks. I want to scare the crap out of you and fulfill your darkest wishes.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Surviving the Holidays as a Writer

  Writing is not a spectator sport, at least not for me. I can’t write while my wife reads over my shoulder. It makes me nervous. The holidays are a time for family and friends to get together and celebrate the season. Often this entails reacquainting yourself with people you haven’t seen in months or years. In the case of family or relatives, you’re often quickly reminded why it’s been months or years. A crowded house makes writing difficult but for some reason suggesting they stay in the local Motel 8 seems offensive to them. How can you continue to rack up the word count or finish the final edit to your novel while the house overflows with Christmas joy, the aroma of cinnamon cookies fresh out of the oven and the screams of playing children?

  I’m lucky in a way. My wife visits her family in Michigan for twelve days each Christmas, leaving me alone except for two cats and the television. Both are distractions but I can handle them most of the time. When a cat wakes me up at four in the morning, it’s a good time to write. Don’t get me wrong. I miss my wife, but Michigan in the winter – Give me a break. I lived in Pennsylvania for four years and Chicago for two. I like seeing my snow up on the peaks of the Catalina Mountains while it’s 65 down in Tucson. Shoveling snow and mukluks are no longer in my vocabulary. I’m basically a hermit by nature. Crowds make me nervous. There might be zombie lurking somewhere among them. In Arizona, you can carry your gun but they still frown on chainsaws and Samurai swords.

  If you can’t lock yourself away from friends and family for a few hours, you can always mentally mull over what you want to write while politely smiling and nodding abstractly, letting the others carry on the conversation. Or you can complain of chronic bowel problems and sneak your laptop into the bathroom as often as possible. Both have their limitations.

  You can explain that you’re self-employed and don’t get the holidays off. Unlike them, you have to make a living, however meager, and just have to finish the next chapter. You can explain that deadlines are like the five o’clock whistle and you don’t want to miss it, or like the Midnight Madness sale at Macy’s. If you’re late, all kinds of bad things happen.

  The next best thing is having your cat bounce on your chest at four a.m., howling like a banshee wanting breakfast. Get up, feed the cat, sneak out your laptop and type away. When your guests arise and ask, “What’s for breakfast?” tell them you haven’t seen I Hop’s menu yet but you’re sure it’s tasty.

  Remember, writing is a trade not a hobby. If you want a hobby, take up knitting. You can knit and talk at the same time.

  Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year!

Friday, November 25, 2011

How Serendipitous

Sometimes things just fall into your lap from the sky. If it is blue ice or bird crap, not so nice. If it's a book deal - hot damn! Two serendipitous occasions lately have given me pause for thought in my writing career.

First, at a seemingly innocuous signing at a local Tucson book store, I met a woman wearing a Tucson Festival of Books t-shirt. For those that don't know the TFB is held each year at the U of A campus and draws thousands of writers of all genres for lectures, signings, book stalls, etc. We talked about the TFB for a while and she left. Later, I was at another signing with several authors and she was the moderator. A few weeks later, she e-mailed me and asked me if I wanted to join some other local authors in sharing a table at TFB. Very cool!

Second, I sold a vampire horror novel, Blood Lust, to Severed Press. That in itself is good, but later they asked me if I would be interested in working on a three-book zombie series. I informed them I had a stand alone zombie novel, Ice Station Zombies, set in Antarctica and Australia, where Severed Press is headquartered. They bought it sight unseen and still sent a contract for the 3-book Judgment Day series. Five books for one. Who'da thunk?

Luck only comes to the well prepared. I had the books and the ideas at hand to pitch. Preparation is okay but means nothing if the opportunity does not come along. I could have waited and tried to sell the other books somewhere else, maybe a larger publisher, but having the novels out there in the public eye not only helps with sales, it primes the pump for future novel, future publishers. Publishers like a writer who has a proven track record, even with small press and there is only one way to get one.

Unlike lightning, serendipity can strike twice in the same spot. I'm hoping the old 'good things happen in threes' adage is true. I'm watching out for that phone call or letter from ACE or TOR.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Big Picture

The Big Picture

  Often, the death of a novel is not so much the writing or the characters as it is The Big Picture. The devil is in the details. Good characters draw the reader into the story. Plot keeps the reader involved. Dialogue can provide background and insight into both characters and overall arc of the story. However, what if the mistakes are so glaring the writer fails to notice them?

  Novels, especially novels that span a large period, move back and forth in time or switch point of views often can read well but perplex the reader. Dates and events can easily become confused, muddling the story. One novel I am working on has two main characters and the events occur weeks apart but in the end, they have to meet up. I have re-written the time frame five times and they are still over a week out of sync. I could easily add more scenes or remove some but this hurts the overall story. My mind fails to grasp The Big Picture.

  I know how I want events to unfold and certain things need to occur at certain times, but the story simply wants to take over and re-write itself. I may have to give in and let my characters do all the work. I’m sure I will eventually be able to synchronize events, but it certainly is no easy task.

  Sometimes the flaw in The Big Picture is not so easy to spot. The overall arc of the story can dip in and out of characters and events until bits and pieces fall off, leaving a tattered ending that barely resembles your original idea. Too often, the writer assumes that it is ‘good enough’ or that the reader will ‘understand what I mean’. Don’t count on it. Readers are fickle. They don’t have your insight into your story and if forced to use their imaginations too much, may miss your point entirely.

  Writing is a time consuming task. Failing to relay your theme to the reader can be a devastating blow to future sales and a waste of your time. Often, it is best to lay aside your story for a while and let your mind move on to other things. Returning at a later point can offer fresh insight and a pair of fresh, unbiased eyes to the story.

  The Big Picture is the heart of your novel, what makes it breathe and come alive for the reader. It deserves more than a cursory edit after using Spellcheck. Read your story as a reader would. If you are confused, you can bet they will be. Remember, if the story is worth writing, it is worth writing well.


Friday, September 30, 2011

Readers Will Eat It Up

Readers Will Eat It Up

   I’m running a little late with this post. I’ve been busy finishing a few things after my great Killer Con weekend in Vegas. Sent off a couple of proposals to agents and publishers I met. Today, I want to talk about food. I’m a retired chef, so I love food. If you saw me, you would say I love it too much and you would be right. Everyone has their favorite comfort food, a dish that brings back fond memories. Mine is meatloaf, mash potatoes and brown gravy. What is it that enhances those memories – the taste, the smell?

  Our sense of smell is probably the strongest sense we have. It is part of our sense of taste. As a chef, I learned that first, you smell food, then you see it, and then you taste it. In Italian restaurants, I would carry a sauté pan full of freshly cooked garlic around the dining room before we sat out first table to whet people’s appetites. You would be surprised how many people took a deep whiff and ordered something with garlic in it.

  As a writer, I use food often in my stories. Restaurants, picnics, dinner tables, bars – all provide a good location for relaxed conversation. No action, no threats (Unless it is overindulging), no long, boring Shakespearean soliloquies. I often use foods particular to the country or city in which the story is set. A character’s choice of food can tell a lot about them, as does the way they eat it, the way they dawdle over it, or the way they play with their food. If a food can evoke memory, a good description of it might evoke a reader’s memory; enfold them more deeply in the characters and storyline.  

  Food and drink can be weapons – poison, or provide comic relief – food fights, spilling a plate, etc. Food can distinguish class and upbringing more poignantly than dress; Peasant or simple food as opposed to lavish meals, eating with the fingers as opposed to using a knife and fork, eating to satisfy or devouring to excess, eating food or consuming human flesh (For you zombie lovers).

  Matched closely with food is drink. Whether a character prefers water, tea, wine, beer, ale, or liquor can tell a lot about them, as does drinking to excess or sipping slowly. Characters like Rooster Cogburn in the movie True Grit would not have been the same as a teetotaler. Certainly, a sober Pap Finn would have sent The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin spinning off in a different direction. A besotted Otis, the town drunk, in Andy Griffin or Falstaff in Henry IV provided comic relief; whereas, Nicholas cage in Leaving Las Vegas was just the opposite, a determined drunk set on self extinction.

  Try whipping up a little repast in your writing and see if it adds depth to your story or character.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Killer Con III

Killer Con III

Killer Con II is coming up Sept. 22-25 at the Stratosphere in glitzy Las Vegas, NV. As someone who has attended the two prior Killer Cons, I suggest you make it if at all possible. The list of Guests of Honor is a Who’s Who of horror – Jonathan Maberry, Jack Ketchum, Ray Garton, Edward Lee, Jeff Mariotte and Monica S. Kuebler. Just being in the presence of these greats will make you a better writer.

All the slots for the Mort Castle Writer’s Workshop are filled, but those lucky enough to be included in this golden opportunity will come away better prepared for the task of writing the next new best seller. The list of panels and speakers is awesome, including a blood spatter demonstration by a forensics expert. I’m not sure where the blood is coming from but I wouldn’t volunteer. After all, these are horror writers and blood is their medium.

Readings galore by some of today’s top writers and pitch sessions with editors, agents and publishers provided an excellent chance to pitch your latest work. A panel seminar on the proper way to pitch before the sessions allow the pitchers to hone their skills for the pitchees. My advice – be yourself, be prepared and be ready to make the most of the opportunity.

Everyone should visit Vegas at least once in their lifetime. At night, the kilowatts of neon lights is enough to attract zombies from three states and moths from other worlds. It is Mothra’s favorite haunt, second only to Tokyo. Nearby Lake Mead is worth the visit and driving across the new arch bridge at Hoover Dam provides a damn good view (Sorry for the pun) of the Colorado River, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

I attended the World Horror Convention in Austin, TX this year. Killer Con is smaller and allows the attendee a more relaxed setting for meeting old friends, making new ones and rubbing elbows with idols. The legendary parties loosen everyone up. Don’t be afraid to walk up to someone and start a conversation. Just don’t start pitching your novel. Make friends. Ask advice.

If you show up at Killer Con, look me up. If I haven’t lost all my money, I’ll buy you a beer.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Coloring Outside the Lines

Coloring Outside the Lines
I admit I’m lousy with colors. A touch of blue-green and red-brown blindness, poor night vision – I would never be able to tell the arrival of dawn the old Middle Eastern nomad way by seeing the difference between a white and a gray goat hair. Yet colors play an important part in our everyday life. Red lights, green lights, yellow caution cones, black armbands for mourning. Colors play a key role in our writing as well.

In horror especially, black, red and their varying hues are significant colors for setting and foreshadowing. Crimson blood, fiery red eyes, ebony shadows, charcoal dusk each evoke a specific memory, allowing the reader to better visualize the scene and mood. Other colors elicit similar responses, such as the pure innocence of white, the coolness of blue or aqua, the serene pastoral quality of green and the earthiness of brown.
I also colored outside the lines as a child. I wasn’t spastic. I saw lines as a challenge to my imagination, too confining. By moving outside the lines, I could change the drawn shapes presented in the coloring book, make them different; make them my own. Writers can do that as well.    

In some cultures, white is the color of mourning, not black. In Korea, a white wedding would raise eyebrows and maybe a few ancestral spirits. Most people see the devil as red, yet the Pope and Cardinals wear red robes. I’m sure it has something to do with the blood of Christ or a tribute to radishes or something but it still looks scary to me. (My apologies to Catholics.)
Green Slime, the Hulk, the Green Goblin vs. the Green Hornet and the Green Lantern. Same color, different visuals, good and bad. Most ghosts (They say) appear white. I’m not sure why unless ectoplasm is made of tapioca. Why not a black ghost? It sure would be difficult to spot at night. Add a splash of royal purple to a peasant character to hint that he might have visions of grandeur. Build new worlds – brown skies, blue grass, and yellow seas. Remove the usual, expected crutches colors provide the reader and force them to create new ones, to pay closer attention to details. In one of my novels, Oracle of Delphi, there are three suns, each a different color. The interplay of shadows and lighting was difficult to keep straight, but it provides a striking background.

In Moby Dick, the titular whale was white, the color of purity but in this case, was the whale evil or was Ahab. Certainly, it was no ghost whale. The gold coin Ahab nailed to the weathered mast would have gleamed in the sun like a jewel, beckoning the crew and riveting their minds, tempting them from their original goal of harvesting oil. The crew was a mixture of stalwart New England Christians and heathens, yet in the end, it was difficult to tell the difference among all the bloodlust. Killing whales was seen as God’s work, providing oil for lamps, but Ahab abandoned God in his desire for revenge. In the end, God abandoned him.
Be bold. Experiment with color. Subtle shading can create new settings or foreshadow events. Try coloring outside the lines.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Is Anybody Out There?

            Is Anybody Out There?

            Writing is a lonely business. You may be surrounded by kids, pets, your significant other or God knows what else, but when you’re writing, you’re alone. It’s just you, your computer (Or typewriter) and your imagination. Perhaps like me, you keep a Random House College Thesaurus handy but no matter how long you stare at it, it won’t talk to you. This can be very intimidating, especially to a novice writer. Most people immerse themselves in the stimuli of life – conversations, music, Play Station, television. Letting it all go and sitting quietly, allowing your mind to wander the Fields of Elysium can unearth hidden demons or rough diamonds needing only a little polishing to shine.
            At conventions, most writers I meet seem the gregarious type, a few too gregarious perhaps, but eager to talk. Alone, the words have to speak for you. Your characters become extensions of your id, your ego. What they say and how they say it reveals as much about the writer as the character. It’s called Voice and we all have it even if it seems all too quiet much of the time. Good Voice grabs the reader’s attention and holds it throughout the story, much like a good oral storyteller, a traveling bard.

            Words are the building blocks of writing, sentence structure and syntax the mortar, but Voice is the architect, the designer deciding what the building looks like. There have been many great classic Architects – Sturgeon, King, Silverberg, and some new ones – Maberry, Lansdale, and Boston. Each has mastered Voice, using it as a surgeon might wield a scalpel, deftly slicing through layers of fantasy, allowing the reader’s mind to explore depths otherwise impossible to experience.
            I grew up in the Deep South – Mississippi and spent 20-plus years in Atlanta. In spite of years in Chicago and Pennsylvania, I speak with a drawl and sometimes catch myself writing with one. Sometimes it’s colorful but often a hindrance, but I have to use it. It’s who I am. So is my history. Where you grew up, what you do for a living (I assume you don’t make a living as a writer), what your life experiences have been all create your Voice. It is the best tool a writer has to put a piece of themselves onto paper.

            I began by talking about loneliness and it is a lonely business. Some writers work in a vacuum, never going to conventions, never attending signings. I can’t. I crave people, not crowds, people. They are the stuff of my stories. Their speech, their mannerisms, their follies, their triumph all become paint for my canvas. Later, alone at my desk, they fill the lonely wanderings of my imagination as I carefully strip them of what they were and create a new being from their rough clay, a character for my story.
            Like the lonely Maytag repairman, writing is a lonely craft. A writer’s ultimate goal is to get one of his/her creations into the public’s hands, to see his/her imagination’s fruit enjoyed by others. Then, it’s back to their lonely world. If, like me, you’re a hermit at heart, it’s not so bad. Keep on writing. Discover your Voice. Use it wisely. Use it together for all mankind.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Making the Most of Your Opportunities

            Making the most of your opportunities.

            I recently attended a reading at a Tucson bookstore with a dozen other authors representing several genres. There was hardly anyone else there and I erroneously assumed I was in for a boring couple of hours. I was pleasantly surprised that many of the authors had good-looking novels or non-fiction books to highlight. The time passed quickly. Not only did I meet a few fellow authors and insure goodwill with a local bookstore, I also met a man who writes reviews for He enjoyed my reading from Hell Rig and assured me of a good review if I sent him an e-copy for review. I certainly will.

            Exposure (Other than forgetting to zip your fly) is golden and often difficult to guarantee. Like most writers, paying for exposure can be costly and risky. Ads in local papers or genre magazines can, but not always, produce a fair return for your investment. Shot gunning Direct Mail flyers to thousands, bombarding your friends and acquaintances with annoying e-mails and blogger posts can lose friends. Facebook, My Space (I can’t believe Justin Timberlake bought My Space), Twitter, Google+, etc. are excellent venues to present yourself first, and then your product (Remember, you are selling you, not just your most recent novel).     

            One cost effective method of advertising is to donate signed copies of your books to local charity events, libraries, schools, or American Legions. I have often gotten front-page exposure by local papers at such events. Send copies to troops overseas or area National Guardsmen stationed overseas and invite local base commanders and the press to the event. I have sold more copies at American Legion events and posts than at bookstores and I write horror.

            Keep business cards and bookmarks on hand with your e-mail address and website prominently displayed. Leave them at bookstores, conventions, airport waiting rooms, etc. The cost is minimal.

            Lastly, but most importantly, build relationships with people in the social media. Do not look at them as potential customers, but as friends. Even if they do not buy your book, they might recommend it to friends or mention it on their blog or website. I choose people I know from conventions, Facebook or Yahoo Groups and promote their latest novel as my Pick of the Week on my website. I do not know if it promotes sales, but I do know people see it.

            When opportunity knocks, do not rush to hide your paraphernalia. (Ha! A little drug humor). Open the door wide and smile.       

Monday, July 11, 2011

Revision Blues

Revision Blues

You’ve written the perfect novel. It is a combination of E. Hemmingway, S. King and B. Potter. You have dreams of six-figure advances and the New York Times Top Ten. Congratulations! I hope you make it. Maybe you will, but don’t send that love child off to the publishers yet. It’s time to really start writing, or rewriting.
It’s called revision or editing and it sucks big time. Every writer approaches it differently but no one enjoys the laborious process of poring over your novel (Or short story) line-by-line, page-by- page, character-by-character. It’s more fun to write. That’s why we write, isn’t it?

I just received a rejection for one of my novels, Blood Lust, but it was a good rejection letter. They loved the story but pointed out a flow problem in chapter six, informing me politely that if I wished to correct the problem and resubmit they would be pleased. (Would I?) Was I angry? I had revised and edited the story several times before submitting. How could they believe there were errors?
There were. I had made the ultimate error in writing. I had read and edited my beloved child with my heart and not my eyes. Editors are heartless, ruthless, vile creatures lurking in musty basements, surviving on errors and spitting out facsimiles of your original novel. (They’re not really but that’s how it seems. They are an integral part of the team.)

There are several steps to editing. Here’s how I do it. (Now)
      1.     Set your novel aside for a while, as long as possible. Then read it again. Does it still strike horror in your heart or make your heart dance with joy? Good.

2.     Concentrate on the Story Line, the tale you wish to tell, the conflict between characters. Is it compelling? Is it believable? (Even fantasy must be believable.)

3.     Next, work on the Pace of the story. Is it a page turner or does it plod along like the last nag I bet on at the racetrack? The best story will not survive a poor telling (Or showing – remember, show don’t tell).

4.     Are your Characters interesting or cardboard cutouts? Would we recognize him or her on the street from your description? Would we have tea with her or a beer with him? One good character isn’t a story unless the conflict is there. Each character should stand out, even the potential corpses (I write lots of horror).

5.     What about Voice with a capital V? Does the Voice add drama or tension to the story or does it sound like you’re whispering secrets to the wind? Voice needs to match the story with a dash of You, the writer thrown in for flavor.

6.     Dialogue. There, I said it,” he said. Dialogue should describe place or characters, move the plot (Storyline) or foreshadow. Don’t use it as a convenient info dump. If it doesn’t do one of the aforementioned, drop it. It’s just filler.

7.     Grammar. (No, not Grandma) Need I say more? The best story will not survive poor grammar. Spell-check only goes so far (Believe me, I know). Look for word usage. Is there a better word than the one you used? Do you repeat words too often? Make certain each word conveys what you mean, succinctly and precisely. Look for punctuation errors or bad habits. Did you use too many commas, exclamation points, colons, semicolons or dashes? These little (Little?) things detract from the flow, confuse the reader and irritate editors.  I read very fast. I have to remember to read slowly, saying each word to myself or aloud or I tend to miss common errors – a for an, or an for and, he for her, etc.   

 Remember. Good stories do sell but great stories sell better. Editors might want your novel but see you, the writer, as a hopeless cause, not worth the time. Make the editor’s job a little easier and he or she will appreciate it and perhaps read just a little farther into your novel. Maybe even to ‘The End’.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Art of Dying

                                                             The Art of Dying

I write a lot of horror. In horror people die, often in the most gruesome manner, at least if I’m doing it right. However, I too often read death scenes that, while highly visual, are hardly believable. I don’t refer to the old ‘There’s a monster in the basement; let’s split up and look for it’ or the ‘I know you said wait here but I want to wander around aimlessly, totally unaware and unarmed’ ploy. I mean the ‘Rip my guts out and I’ll still kill you’ ploy.
            I’ve never fought a war but I did work in several hospital emergency rooms. I’ve seen too much death and severe wounds. People rarely suffer a severe wound and drive themselves to the ER. They call (Or someone calls) 911. In cases of severe wounds, the body goes into shock. It’s a defense mechanism. Blood pools around the injury and the victim often passes out. They don't get up and fight back. The same goes for head injuries. I know Arnold S. or Sylvester S. can get beaten up, hit over the head with a metal pipe and have both eyes pulped, then find a hidden reserve of energy and defeat the villain, but most people can’t. Equally, the can get shot in the shoulder, the leg and possibly the side and still chase down and kick some ass. I'm sure I couldn't.

            Get real with your writing. I know things like that look marvelous on TV or in the movies and it might read well, but it ain’t so!
            Don’t get me wrong. I love making things up. That’s my job. But I try to get as many facts correct as I can, whether it’s location, dates, or fight scenes, before I go off on a tangent and let my imagination go wild. To me, at least, it seems more believable, unlike early comic books (Graphic novels) which depicted epic battles that should have killed both participants and any onlookers.

            I’m not naysaying writers who like to stretch the boundaries a bit: To each his/her own. Being more realistic in fight scenes, explosions, etc. makes the characters more real to me. No matter how good a shape you’re in, you can’t dodge a bullet, block a well delivered blow from a steel pipe with your forearm, or grab a thrust sword blade between your palms (Ref: Mythbusters).
            If your character is important enough to write about, he/she deserves a believable (If ignominious) death scene. Deaths, like dialogue, should serve to advance the storyline or build or change your characters. Death scenes, if done properly, can evoke emotion (Love Story), revenge (Collateral Damage), fear (Alien) or satisfaction (See Alien again). Handled improperly, it can detract from an otherwise enjoyable read.    

            One of my early mentors, Jonathan Maberry, who I still follow avidly, instilled in me the desire and the logic of injecting reality into my fiction. A careful balance between the two enhances the story, builds more believable worlds and defines character. This is especially true of location. As a Tucsonan, I’m horrified to see movies with Giant Saguaros in the background when the action takes place in Boliva, or as a former Southerner reading about a character in a novel enjoying the scent of Magnolia blossoms in South Dakota. I know I might be nitpicking here, but it distracts me, takes my mind from the read abd focuses it on the error.
            Give your characters an honorable death. Make it real.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Building Character in Your Characters

  Character is defined as the nature, quality, temperament or moral fiber of an individual. Adults become the child and its environment. Much is said about slum children or ghetto children or even one-parent children, their disadvantages and the poor likelihood of their success. I dispute this. While disadvantages are just that, disadvantages, character makes the person.
  What about your characters? I know they do not spring full-grown from your mind and fall glibly upon the page. Somewhere deep in your psyche they undergo conception, birth and childhood. You set them upon their course and direct their movements. Are they cardboard cutouts, mere automatons upon which you heap the trials of Job or Jonah or are they flesh and blood people who live, love, yearn and die?
  Characters make the story. Indeed, without them, there is no story. Doesn’t it follow that a compelling story needs compelling characters? What would Moby Dick be without peg-legged and whale scarred Captain Ahab or Lord of the Rings without good-natured, loyal Samwise? Not only your protagonist, your antagonist and host of supporting characters need lives as well. Who cares if a cardboard cutout dies a violent death or if a spineless, sniveling whiner threatens to destroy the galaxy?
  Just like a child, you develop them from the ground up. Reading is visual but the images are created in the reader’s mind by your words. Help your readers by giving them a framework with which to work. Describe your characters, not coldly and clinically as if they are admiring themselves in a mirror, but in bits and pieces as the story unfolds. How do they move – boldly, timidly, with a limp? What color hair – red hair brings connotations of quick anger or taunting as a child (Towhead?) Long black hair often denotes sultry, exotic. Is their face stern, jolly, handsome, scarred, fat, thin? Do they speak with a lisp, in rhyme, with a foreign accent? Do they play ball, jog, smoke, sit on the couch and chug beer and eat pretzels?
  Look around you. There are millions of characters out there, each with a story. Just take a typical bar (Or pub in the UK). Are your characters as varied as the people sitting around you? If not, they should be. Above all, your characters should be individuals with which the reader can relate and form a bond that lasts until the end of the story and hopefully farther. Your characters determine the direction, the scope and the theme of your story as much as the story develops and grows your characters. Like individuals, they grow from their testing their environment, the obstacles you place in the way of their quest, whether it is saving the world, winning the big game or finding the perfect mate. Both grow together, story and characters. Nurture them well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Five Easy Steps to Success

Writers often forget the most important factor in becoming a successful author – the reader. The reader is essential, the life and breath of a writer. An author’s job is to satisfy the reader. Author satisfaction is secondary. After all, don’t you want to make each novel better, to improve your craft? An author should never be satisfied until the reader is. Below are 5 points in which I firmly believe. I hope they prove useful to you.
1.      Credit the readers. Readers are usually intelligent creatures. It is best to think of them as more intelligent than you, the writer. This avoids those nasty little details that trip up readers – loose plot points, disappearing characters, obvious foreshadowing that fails to materialize … the list goes on. As a writer, you know what is going on and don’t need those little hints or adding a name instead of ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ or ‘He looked at her’ to keep track of the conversation. This is my biggest mistake, which I have to dutifully go back and correct. My dialogues flow rapidly and it’s easy to confuse the reader, especially with multiple characters speaking.

2.      Be original. Don’t think for a moment that your readers haven’t read the classics or perused more novels than you have. They often have. Rehashing earlier movies works for movies but often does not for novels. If not plagiarism, it is at least an insult to the reader and the original author unless, of course, you give them credit or are writing a spoof. Originality scores high marks with readers.

3.      Challenge the reader.  Surprises keep the reader interested. A flat, dull chapter ending discourages turning to the next chapter. Why do you think serial adventures were so popular at the movies in the 40s and 50s? Cliffhangers still work.  

4.      Teach the reader. Readers usually choose authors and topics with which they are comfortable. Using strings of polysyllabic words is okay for textbooks but not for light reading. Be concise and real, but do choose some words that send the reader to the dictionary. Learning new adjectives or words or phrases from other cultures keeps the reader coming back. No sixteen-year old or even thirty-something reader wants to read a Grade School level book. Most people inherit the vocabulary in which their culture, their geography or their literary preferences immerse them.

5.      Enlist the reader. The average writer will author more than one novel. If you want to retain readers, you must enlist them in your cadre of fans. Encourage dialogue though social networking – blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Encourage critiques of your work. They will be honest in their opinion and, after all, it is they you need to please, not friends or family. Social networking is easier and less costly and time consuming than book signings or conventions and you can reach more people. Become tech savvy. Utilize the new technological tools available to writers. Even an old dog like me can learn a few new tricks.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

World Horror Con 2011

  I just spent three glorious days in Austin, Texas at the WHC 2011 mingling with big name writers, old friends and new ones. Our suite at the Doubletree was awesome. It was as big as a small apartment with four windows and a balcony and the beds were great. The Doubletree is an old hotel with amazing architectural features, a far cry from most cookie-cutter hotels. It made relaxing easy. The Doubletree was easily the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in at a convention. Now, on to the convention.
  Wrath White outdid himself this time. The set up was fantastic and went as smooth as clockwork. I had three pitch sessions and pitched three different books. All editors asked for copies. Nice! My reading of a few passages from Hell Rig at the Damnation Book party went well and I sold a few copies from it. It was lots of fun. I especially loved Lincoln Crisler’s reading with his animated voices of characters. Kim and company did a wonderful job.
  Note to networking – I met Clair LaVay, writer of House of De Bauch vampire comics at a pitch session. We talked a bit about my book Hell Rig and she commented it would make a great movie. About ten o’clock Saturday night – I was already undressed – she called my room and told me she had met a man on the elevator looking for an action-filled horror novel for a movie and told him about mine. I met her at the Cutting Block Press party and talked to an unnamed gentleman about my book, gave him a copy and he said he would read it and contact me. He and some friends make 3-4 movies for the Cannes Film Festival every year and wanted some horror. Here’s hoping! Thank’s to Clair LaVay. Hope her comic flourishes.
  My wife and I ate at Pappadeaux’s. Great Cajun food. The red beans and rice and seafood gumbo were to die for and I should know. I’m a chef who learned his trade in New Orleans. I wish there was one in Tucson. The food in the Doubletree was very good but the menu was limited. Chili’s and Pappasito’s Mexican restaurant were next door though.
  The mass signing was a little weird. There were about a hundred writers and maybe fifty buyers but it was a good experience. My real luck was at my book launch party in my hometown of Corinth, MS. I sold about forty books in two hours. It was good to see my family. We just made it back before the floods got too bad in Arkansas. We left in the middle of the night and made a 125 mile detour that wound up taking 5 hours but that was better than the 11 mile backup on I-40 the next day.
  I’ve been to several WHCs and HWA Cons and Killer Cons and Copper Cons but this was the best ever. I hope it was productive and fruitful.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Seizing the Moment

You’ve finally polished, edited and submitted your novel and, lo and behold, it was accepted and published. Now it’s time to start promoting it, right?
You should have started a year ago. Drum up interest in your novel before it’s published. Use your blog, guest blogs, your website, Facebook – anywhere you can. Make that new novel surge out of the starting blocks like Secretariat. As a matter of fact, unless you plan on writing just one novel, it is a much better idea to promote yourself as a writer than to promote just one book. Let people get to know you via some of the methods I suggested above. Don’t pester! Don’t make every post a ‘Buy Me’ post. Be yourself (Unless you’re an asshole, but even assholes need to sell books).
Contact local bookstores, coffee shops, library groups for a book signing or a reading. If you are a member of a club, say VFW or American Legion, send copies to troops in Afghanistan or Iraq. Try to get the local paper to cover it. Be creative but not abusive. Join an on-line writer’s group but don’t just push you book. Make friends. Help them and they will help you. Remember, they have books to sell too.
Most importantly, remember family and friends. My first novel, God Seed, had no promotion but word of mouth. My 86-year old mother sold over a hundred copies in my home town by carrying a copy in her purse and saying to everyone she met, “You need to buy my son’s book.” She knows everyone and is well liked, so it worked for her. It might not work for you. Someone might just bop you in the nose for being pushy. It helps to be 86.
Carpe Diem - Seize the day.  I say, “Seize the moment.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Use What You Know

Use What You Know

When writing your bestselling novel, it is always best to choose a subject with which you are familiar. There is nothing more disheartening than reading a story set in a foreign country by someone who doesn’t know the language, the customs or even the local. Instead of say, Beijing, it reads more like Chinatown in LA. Even an issue of National Geographic can give you a few basic ideas on foreign countries and customs.
Use what you do. I am a chef and a musician. While neither figures prominently in my writings, I tend to use both for settings and for mood. Conversations over a meal or a glass of wine while listening to music can be the ideal device to elicit responses from your characters and set differences between them. Do they prefer a spicy dish or bland? Wine or beer? Jazz or show tunes?
Use you passions. History is one of my passions, so historical accuracy is very important to me when I read for relaxation. Nothing ruins a good story for me like a blaring mistake in a date or historical event. A casual reader might pass over it but to me it’s a stop sign. There are websites devoted to historical accuracy in dress, language and customs. Even fiction set in an alternate time needs some kind of factual starting point, perhaps even more so. Love to bike? Use it as a theme or way to learn about your character. Love cats? Write detective stories with cats. My wife loves them.
Use your locale. Another passion of mine is location. I live in Arizona, a state of many dramatically different elevations and climates. Saguaro cactus, that massive centuries old, may-armed giant, grows only in certain locals in the Mojave Desert of Southern Arizona, Northern Mexico and around Phoenix. Reading a story with Saguaro in Wyoming makes me cringe. Seeing it in movies does too. I can place westerns’ filming locations by the pants and the mountains. Do a little research. Cottonwoods need water. Joshua Trees don’t. Cypress grows in swamps. Firs grow at higher altitudes. Mary Beth’s favorite Magnolia tree from her home in Georgia isn’t going to do well in her new home in Yuma, Arizona. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to strive for accuracy in flora and fauna and can convey professionalism to an editor.
When I use a city I’m not familiar with as a location – New York or Cairo – I use National Geographic, Yahoo Maps, order tourist information from the city involved and search on-line for tidbits of information. It can help build a factual base but it won’t help much with local dialect, local traffic patterns, etc. Dig deep. Sometimes the tidbits become germs for ideas for your story, affecting plotline and character.  
Use what you know, love or want to learn. If you wish to portray an autistic teen, such as I am in a novel in progress, read up on autism. Go to a school where they teach autistic children. Be accurate. 1 out of 110 children are diagnosed with autism. Seems very high to me, but there are degrees of autism. The way I pay attention, my wife thinks I’m autistic sometimes. Personal tragedies or triumphs make good novels if handled properly. Love astrophysics but can’t add 2 plus 2? Read up on it. Others have done the math for you.
Writing is pouring your soul onto a page. Writing well is adding the spice that turns it into a bestselling novel. Write well.