Archive | June, 2010

News + Miscellaneous hints, etc. –

29 Jun

Okay, this week’s blog is really long, and I apologize for that, but there just was no place to sensibly cut it in half, so the whole thing is here. But first – a little word from our sponsor. Well, maybe not quite that.  But – I am really pumped by the following little news item, so I wanted to share it with the world!

In my bio for this blog, I mentioned my three ‘free reads’ or Scintillating Samples as my publisher refers to them. I was really tickled by this opportunity, as I quite like short stories, and there aren’t an abundance of markets for them. Anyway, last weekend my publisher sent out a note to all her authors that we had 42 of the top 100 ‘free’ bestsellers on the Amazon Kindle list.

So, then, Monday morning, I was just totally astonished to discover the existence of this bestseller list for Amazon’s Kindle. It never dawned on me that I would be there, but lo—and behold!! I am. Seriously. On this list (on the free side) my three short stories were ranked 31, 52, and 61. (at 11 am, that is.) This list includes all genres.  (A couple of hours ago, this is now Tuesday, they’d slipped to 33, 77 and 92. Still not bad.)

On the romance page, I’m way higher yet! Monday I was ranked 5, 11 & 16! Mercy! (Now 8, 18, & 20.) Well. That’s enough of that, but I am really pleased. I just hope that the people who downloaded my stories to their Kindle like them enough to consider any of my non-free books! We’ll see.

And now, back to our regularly-scheduled program . . .

In the 17 years since my first book was published (Secret Shores from Berkley, about to be reissued through I’ve been asked to speak at a wide variety of events and places. Writer’s conferences and libraries are probably the most frequent of these, and I always respond positively, when I can. One of the nicer perks of speaking at a conference is that one can usually attend any of the other presentations offered, at times other than your own.

I’ve been going through boxes of old papers, most of which hit the re-cycling bin, but not before being thoroughly examined for pertinent info or content. One such large (9 x 12”) envelope caught my eye the other night, as it had scribbles on both sides. A quick reading through these lines suggested I’d used it for note-taking at just such a conference session. I’m not sure when it was, but probably at Lakeland Community College (east of where I live) and the speaker was most likely (I think) the noted mystery writer Les Roberts, who writes Cleveland-based stories featuring a Slovenian-American detective Milan Jacovich.

Les came to Cleveland via Chicago and Hollywood some years ago, and is a delightful speaker as well as a gripping writer, so I always tried to sit in on his sessions whenever possible. I’m pleased to call Les a friend, and have even been an object lesson during a couple of his talks. (It’s much better to isolate someone you know instead of a stranger who might take offense.

But, here are my notes exactly from this workshop – I’ll fill them in later.

Need for precision fights creativity
Create your own universe
Make it vivid – sight, sound, color, etc.
Find the beginning or the hook.
What if?
Build it backwards
Nothing is written in stone
‘Dump’ technique and KISS.
Skip around. Don’t worry about sequence.
Dialogue first, then narrative.
Only rough draft – less than 5% make it to a final one.
Good writing is re-writing.
End in the middle of a sentence or paragraph (at the end of the writing session)
Flashes of visual scenes – you’ll lose touch with reality – they need to be written immediately they happen.
What I see or hear is not actuality
Multiple files – storage; scenes, dialogue, etc.
Backtracking / puzzle pieces
Newspaper – Antique Week.
Astrological charts
Which comes first – plot or research? Look for historical time-line book.

Okay. Translation time, as far as I can recall– or figure out, at any rate. If I’m wrong, someone will tell me! The comments are mostly my own – not necessarily as exactly from Les. (Or whoever it was.)

Need for precision fights creativity
When in the throes of creativity, write. Ignore everything else—details, etc. It’s more important to get as much on paper (or screen) as you can before you lose it. You can do the research later to make it accurate. Of course, you WILL do the research later, but not when the muse is HOT!!!

Create your own universe

If you can’t figure where or when to set your book, or if you feel restricted by the known world – then make up a new one! No one says it can only be what we already know! Think of Jules Verne – if you don’t recognize that name – you should. Visit your local library immediately!

Make it vivid – sight, sound, color, etc.
This will be an upcoming blog topic, all by itself. But basically, it means to use all five of your senses (and the sixth, if you have one) to make your prose colorful and lively. Think of taste, smell, touch, sound, sight, and how much they can add to your story.

Find the beginning or the hook.
Obviously, this is really important, but if you can’t find it, just start writing, anyway.  Something.  Anything.  Eventually, it’ll make itself known to you, and that’s when you’ll really start writing! Whatever you’ve done in the meantime doesn’t get thrown out, however. It’s all grist for your mill. Keep it, and insert chunks here and there, where appropriate.

What if?
Indeed. What if—? I think every story in the world has been started because someone said, (either silently or out loud) ‘what if—?’ and away we went!

Build it backwards
Can’t get started? Okay, then start at the other end and go backwards. At some point, you’ll find your beginning, and there you are.

Nothing is written in stone
Only too true. Thanks to computers, changing, altering, moving text from here to there – it’s very, very moveable! Fifty years ago, if you made a mistake at the bottom of the page while typing, chances are you’d have to discard that entire page and start all over again at the top of a fresh sheet of paper. Carbon paper made maybe two clear copies, but not more than that. And copy machines weren’t yet invented, either. When they did come along, finally, they were frightfully expensive to use, let alone purchase! The technical aspects of writing today are so much easier and less-expensive as to be incomprehensible to us old-timers! (Believe it!) Remember, Shakespeare wrote 36 plays and hundreds of sonnets – with a feather!

‘Dump’ technique and KISS.
KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. But you knew that, didn’t you? So. Who says, technique is mandatory? Had Agatha Christie followed that dictum with her first big hit Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, chances are excellent she’d never have had another hit. She did everything ‘wrong’ in that book—and not only was it a smash hit, it opened the door to her next 80-some books! KISS sort of means ‘Don’t get so carried away by the complexities of things that you go right on past the easy way. Not that easy is always best, but you can’t know that if you don’t try it first.

Skip around. Don’t worry about sequence.
Some people start on page one and write straight through to the end of the story. Some start in the middle and go in either direction; sometimes one way, sometimes another. If it all hangs together when it’s done, who cares how it got that way?

Dialogue first, then narrative.

Well, yeah, mostly. But sometimes you need to find the frame for the dialogue, so this one is a toss-up. Of course, if at first you can’t write dialogue, then polish the heck out of the narrative. Or vice versa.

Only rough draft – less than 5% make it to a final one.
True. (check a prior blog entry for more explanation.)  Don’t waste too much time trying to make it perfect before it’s done. Getting it done is the most important part of all.

Good writing is re-writing.
Amen, brother and sister! If you can’t or won’t re-write, you’ll not ever be much of a writer.

End in the middle of a sentence or paragraph
(at the end of the writing session)
If you have trouble getting started sometimes, especially after an unexpected layoff from your writing, this is a good way to prepare yourself to jump back in. It might be helpful to at least make a note in pencil as to where you’re going at the point where you stopped.

Flashes of visual scenes – you’ll lose touch with reality – they need to be written immediately they happen.
Have you ever awakened with a scene, or a plot, in your head? You’re smiling as you tumble out of bed, without quite realizing why. And then you recall, and you know it was the best thing you’d come up with yet. But. First you gotta shower, then get coffee, get dressed and rush off to work before you get the chance to write anything down. Wrong. Do without the shower and the coffee. (Do get dressed however, before you head out the door!) Be late for work, if you must. But in the meantime, take a few minutes to at least jot down the basics of your idea, or by time you get home later that day, it might be gone forever! Alas.

What I see or hear is not actuality
I’m not sure about this one. I’ll think about it. Or ask Les.

Multiple files – storage; scenes, dialogue, etc.
Make separate files for these items. (See blog #6 – Getting Started)

Backtracking / puzzle pieces

Writing a story –especially a mystery, is a good deal like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. You have to scatter clues as well as red herrings all over the place, plus have several possible suspects. Chances are you can’t easily keep track of all these things unless you do a fair amount of backtracking.

Newspaper – Antique Week.
Newspapers (at the library or on microfiche) are an excellent source of background information. If your story is set in the past (even by only 20 years or so) you can pick up some nifty bits of information from newspapers like Antique Week, or magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, or something similar. Look at the ads! They’ll tell you everything you ever wanted to know. Well, almost.

Astrological charts
Ahhh. Yes. Here is where you make your characters believable, interesting people. Astrological charts provide basic traits common to a given astrological sign. For instance, if you want to know who I am, read up on Aries. Un Real. I swear the people who create these things have been hanging out in my head! It’s downright scary, is what it is. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot change myself to be something else, either.

Which comes first – plot or research? Look for historical time-line book.
I think the book is called What Happened When? I’ll find the proper title and report back next week. How’s that?

Happy reading, everyone – and happy writing, too!

If you have questions or comments, please write to me at And please do feel free to pass this along to anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!

P. S. If you’re in Cleveland this weekend, please stop by Loganberry Books on Larchmere on Saturday, July 3 between noon and 4 pm. Say hello to 45 (or so) local authors. I’ll be there!


What is plot, anyway?

23 Jun

Plot is what happens when and how and why, and usually to whom! And then – what happens next?

There are a few rather simplistic definitions of this. For example, the long-time romance novel plot was: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. In this case, the ‘get’ meant a marriage was on the very near horizon. In the last few years, however, that ‘get’ has found another meaning. The couple doesn’t necessarily have to be heading for a wedding, but they will definitely be making a commitment to each other. And no, in this case ‘wedding’ and ‘commitment’ are not synonyms.

In a mystery, someone does something they shouldn’t have done, but they will get caught, and they had better suffer punishment for their dirty deed. And of course, the detective—whether professional or amateur—will seriously consider those three indicators of guilt: motive, means and opportunity.

But even so, there’s more yet to plotting a successful mystery novel. I came across this the other night, from a slightly elderly book. It’s The Missing Chapter by Robert Goldsborough, who wrote several Nero Wolfe books after the death of Nero’s creator, Rex Stout. I’ll paraphrase his brief essay about plotting rather than use the entire thing. The trick is to give each suspect – there’s usually five or seven of them – a motive for having done whatever was done. Each suspect must get more or less equal play, and the author needs to distribute a few red herrings along the way, as well. The puzzle needs to be hard to solve, while at the same time playing fair with the reader. The clues need to be well-hidden, but still be there to see. (the italics are mine.)

I’m not overly sure about science fiction or fantasy, but I think perhaps the plot for these books depend almost entirely on the writer’s imagination. More so than the other genres, that is. Think Isaac Asimov, for example, certainly one of the most prolific and perhaps even the most creative writer who ever lived. John Creasey is another such, but primarily in the mystery field. Next to these two gentlemen, the ‘queen’ of mysteries – Dame Agatha Christie – was a veritable non-starter with 80-something or thereabouts. A quick check discloses that Asimov is credited with 500+ novels, Creasey (with his 12+ pseudonyms) 564, and America’s own possibly most prolific author, the very popular Nora Roberts (also writing as J. J. Robb) with (so far) nearly 300.

I decided to check on this concept, and found an interesting site that nearly blew me away! Talk about prolific! Wow. The notion of anyone writing 900 books is simply mind-boggling!

All that only proves I don’t always know as much as I sometimes think I do! I’ve not read anything by most of these folks, so I don’t know if they were repetitious or clever or great writers. Comments welcome.

On the other hand Margaret Mitchell wrote one book – Gone With the Wind, and Harper Lee wrote only To Kill a Mockingbird. Wanting to know more, I found this blog. Very interesting.

But back to plot.

Probably no two authors approach writing a book in the same fashion, and that’s okay. If you follow the conventions for the type (or genre) of book that you want to write, that’s a great first step. Some years ago, there was a philosophy that every chapter should have three distinct scenes. And there should be a ‘major’ event every five chapters. In a romance novel, for instance, by the end of the first chapter the boy should have at least met the girl, and by the end of the fifth chapter they should be getting along rather well.

By the end of the tenth chapter, perhaps things are starting to fall apart, with a great deal of angst on either side. If they are meant to be together, they’ll start thinking and wondering ‘what if? Or ‘if I did that, would he/she do this?’ all of which soul-searching should eventually bring them together again. By the end of the fifteenth chapter this should have happened, with the happy wedding or commitment ceremony taking place (or about to) in the sixteenth chapter. Of course, your book (just like mine) might refuse to follow that path. So let it go – see where it leads you. Unless, of course, you’ve already sold the book, based on just a synopsis or partial submission. In that case you will definitely need to have a chat with your editor! Sooner rather than later.

My book Windsong was a prequel to Secret Shores. Although written later, the action takes place some 24 years earlier. This was a complication I’d not intended. I dutifully concocted a dandy synopsis of the action for these two people, and how they would eventually get together. It was a truly good synopsis. I thought so then, and I still think so, even though the finished book bears almost no resemblance whatever to that synopsis. Hah! The two characters met for the first time on page 6, and took off from there, blithely doing their own thing—to my surprise and that of my editor at the time. To her credit, she agreed with me that the book I ended up with was better than the one I’d intended to write. C’est la vie.

All that means is—there is more than one way to write a book. You won’t know what your best way is, until you try. You might make a list of things you mean to incorporate into your story, and then sit down to write it. In my mind, characters are more important than plot, because if you don’t know your characters all that well, they may well refuse to do what you think they should. If that happens, you could all too easily end up with an incomplete book taking up space in your computer or your desk drawer. It might take years for you to figure out the right solution, but I’d bet you’ll give in before your characters do!

Happy Writing! Please feel free to share this blog with anyone you think might like to know about it. If you have comments or questions, please ask!

It’s a puzzlement . . .

15 Jun

As frequently happens, best laid plans and all that . . .

Originally, the plan for this week’s blog entry was for it to be about plot. But that notion was derailed the other day by this episode. Plotting may come next week. In the meantime:

When I was younger, I made it a point to always finish reading any book that I started. About twenty years ago, I suddenly realized that there were more books than there was time, so I began to be a bit more judicious. I might give a book 50 pages, and if it hadn’t engaged me by that time, I gave up on it. More recently, I’m not always even that generous with my time, although I’m not averse to giving up even on page 200 out of, say, 250 total pages.

Or, if it’s a mystery that I really can’t figure out, yet I’d kind of like to know the resolution, I may persist and finish the book. But then, I go into my master reading list and put a big NO next to the book’s title, so I’ll know not to try that author again.

A week or so ago, I gathered up a batch of newish cozy mysteries from my library and looked forward to indulging myself. Hah! A couple of them were the second or third book in a series of which I’d not yet read the first one, so back I went to the computer to order the originals in the series.

One of them, however, was indeed the first of a new series, so I started reading. I can only believe that this (previously unknown to me) author somehow blackmailed the editor into acquiring and publishing the book. There can be no other excuse for such a waste of paper, time and money. (Fortunately, not mine!)

Because I don’t want to be sued for stating my opinion, I won’t mention the title or author, but will instead use such an egregious mess as a learning tool.

Most writers believe they can write. (I do, certainly, while realizing that not everyone will agree with me.) Many writers are actually much better story-tellers than they are writers. This is why editors were created. Sometimes an editor can get past the imperfections of the manuscript if the story itself is engaging enough to capture his or her attention. Of course, some writers resist changing any of their precious words, but a sensible one will at least listen to what the editor has to say, and why.

Readability should be the prime concern of both writer and editor. Making it easy for the reader to quit before finishing the book and champing at the bit for the next one to come, is not a good thing. First time authors seldom earn money for the publisher – it takes repeat titles and back-lists to firmly establish an author in the eyes of the public and the publisher. Unfortunately, this does not happen very often, especially in this hurry-up world we now live in.

This particular book—the one mentioned above—is vastly over-written. I should say, the first 25 pages are horribly over-written. That’s when I gave up. Even though the author did a ‘good thing’ by ending a chapter with a hook, prompting the reader to turn the page and continue reading, I had absolutely no difficulty in putting the book down for the night without turning that page. It was also very easy to find something else to read the next day.

The prologue was several pages worth of totally uninteresting minutiae that made no sense at all, and didn’t really seem to be connected to the story itself. Of course, I realize it might have connected somewhere in the next 300 or so pages, but these first pages were so poorly written and full of mistakes that I kept shaking my head over them.

Originally, this book was self-published (sans editor, I’m quite certain). The mystery to me is: how on earth did it get picked up by a large NY house, to be published again, with all these errors in it?

Beats me! But I’ll tell you this much. I’m seriously considering the possibility of blackmail. There just cannot be any other excuse! I’ve read entirely too many better manuscripts in contests for unpublished writers!

‘tis a mystery, indeed!

Until next week – if you have questions or comments, please send them on:

Just please don’t ask the identity of that book! My lips are sealed.

Which comes first – the characters or the plot?

9 Jun

Most of the time, they ‘hatch’ simultaneously, which is most likely what prompted you to want to write the book. You sit down and start writing, and then to your absolute amazement one of any number of things can happen.
1. You get stuck because your characters don’t know what to do with themselves, and won’t cooperate with your master plan.
2. The characters come to life and decide to tell their own story, paying absolutely no attention to you – their creator! Generally, when this happens, you should let them do pretty much as they wish – it means they know themselves better than you do. Or did. Or thought you did!
3. The plot cranks along for a while, then dies. And you don’t know what to do with or about it, because the characters won’t help you figure it out.
4. A character you’d never even considered suddenly takes over the entire story, pushing your original main characters right under a bus. Now what? This isn’t what you planned, at all!

Help!? Now what do you do?

Well, most of the above problems can be avoided, but probably not all of them all the time. However, if you truly know your characters, you won’t try to put them in the wrong story, which is a good place to begin. One useful way to learn more about your characters is to fill out a résumé for them – at least for the more important ones. Or – pretend you’re an interviewer for a dating service. It’s your job to weasel out as much useful information as possible from this person sitting across the table from you. You can’t find their perfect match unless you know every single thing about that person. So —
First, create a physical description of this character as you see him/her so that someone else has a quick mental picture.

Name: (including nick-names, and explanation for any kind of special name.)
Address: (maybe you don’t need this specific information for the book, exactly, but knowing where they live, what type of house [apartment, hotel, single home, mobile home] can tell you a lot about them.)
Date & Place of Birth:
Height/Weight/Physical Description:
Citizenship/Ethnic Origin:
Parents’ names & occupations:
Other family members:
Spouse or lover:
Friends’ names & occupations:
Social class:
Social class:
Community status:
Job-related skills:
Political beliefs/affiliations:
Personal qualities (imagination, taste, etc.):
Driving passion:
Sense of humor:
Happiest memory:
Biggest disappointment:
Health/physical condition/distinguishing marks/disabilities:
Sexual orientation/experience/values:
Tastes in food, drink, art, music, literature, decor, clothing:
Attitude toward life:
Attitude toward death:
Philosophy of Life (in a phrase):

You may not use all this information, and you may want to add categories of your own, but a résumé certainly helps make your character come alive in your own mind.
Main characters are larger than life. Secondary may be important but not in the same way. They can’t be all bad or all good; they’re a mixture just like all humans are. They have weaknesses and make mistakes. Be sure to give them little HUMAN flaws. No one wants to read (always and only) about the most beautiful, richest, baddest person out there. People don’t live that life—they only dream it. Remember the old saying –

Life Happens. To the best of us!
If your character does that to you – hang on and enjoy the ride! You won’t soon forget it, and neither will your readers.

We’ll start on plot next time. But until then — how are you doing? Making progress? If you have questions or comments, please write to me at:

Getting Started —

2 Jun

“I know I want to write a book. The story is all right there in my head. But I don’t know where—or how—to start!” I once said the very same things. So, what do you do first?

I’ve heard these remarks (or others very similar to them) from so many people in the last twenty years. It really isn’t all that difficult, and there’s no right or wrong way. No matter what you do, it’s okay, as long as you DO something! If you don’t, no one else will do it for you. You’re the one to make the decisions and get it all started.

If this seems an almost insurmountable hurdle to you, then here are a few suggestions.

Let’s presume you’re using Word as your word processing program. In Windows Explorer, make a new folder titled BOOK if you don’t know what else to call it. (You can easily re-name it later.) Then, in Word, open a new document. Save it in the Book folder as Ideas. Open another new document and call it Characters. A third document would be Count, and a fourth could be Blurbs. Five would be Synopsis, and sixth is One. Seventh might be Research or Resources. (Even if your story is contemporary, you’ll undoubtedly still have to do some research.) If you think you want a prologue for your story, then make a document called Prologue.

There’s your basic setup. Granted, you’ll have a batch of empty documents staring at you, but it’s very easy to put some little thing in each one to get you going.

Under Ideas, start with such basics as a sentence or two about the plot or the setting or the characters, and what is going to happen to them. For instance: just after high school graduation, a young couple, in love with each othe, are separated for years and years. What happens if—or when they meet again fifty years later?

In Characters, describe these two people—as teens, and again, as senior citizens. Are they the same? Different? What has happened to them in the intervening years? Is the attraction still there? Where does all this take place? Are there other characters involved? (I certainly hope so!) Describe them, and the parts they’ll play in this story. If you have difficulty imagining your characters, try writing a resume for them, as if they were looking for a job – or, create a persona for an on-line dating service. (Without actually doing that, of course!) Characters need a horoscope sign, for instance, as well as an ethnic background. The more you know about them, the less likely you’ll be to have them do something you’d not previously imagined.

Blurbs will hold the descriptionof your book. Start with a sentence or two (as I did above.) Then a paragraph, next a page, until you’ll have several pages (maybe) which can then be transferred to the Synopsis file. (How to write a synopsis comes later.) If you start researching agents or publishers on-line, you’ll quickly see how useful this information will be to you later on, when you will get seriously involved in this quest. Don’t do it until your book is done, however. That’s just wasted time and effort.

Research and/or Resources are pretty self-explanator. If you get a book (or video/DVD, whatever) from the library, use the documentation for it, to keep a record of what you found where. An editor may well question you on your source material, and will be very impressed when this information is at your fingertips.

Count is for when you actually start writing the story. Keep track of how many words you produce each day! This is very important, because the growing total will serve as excellent motivation for you to keep adding to that total. As you write, you’ll find it gets easier and easier, and you’ll feel a tremendous sense of pride as the numbers increase! (The computer will automatically count them for you.) Furthermore, you’ll know how far you are from your goal.

Before you start writing, you should know approximately the length of the book you expect to produce. You will not want to write 150,000 words if the publisher says 75,000. Or the other way around. Books range from about 40,000 to over 400,000 for some fantasy novels. But I digress.

Here’s how I set up my count file: (you should feel free to do it differently, if you wish. The most important thing is to keep track of your word count, at least on a weekly basis.)

For example:
date     words today      total to date      total pages
9/24         1059                  2360                 8

You can also keep track of chapter length in this way.
chapter  words today  total to date    page #s today  pgs today     total pgs
One          2870            4412                4 –  9           = 5                9

Here is how you can indeed write a 75,000 word book in three months, or actually 13 weeks! Or less, if the process really grabs you! Divide 75,000 words by thirteen, and you’ll find you should do roughly 5770 words each week. This is perhaps one or two chapters worth. If you think you can write every day of the week, then you need to do 825 words a day. For six days a week you’d be wanting to do 965 words a day. That really isn’t so very many! If you do single-spaced typing, that’s approximately two pages! If you double-space, it’s four.

Look at it from another angle. One thousand words a day for six days a week is 6000 words. In thirteen weeks, you’d have 78,000! That’s plenty for a genre novel. So – what are you waiting for?

Open the file called One and start typing. It makes little difference what you actually write in here, the most important thing is TO WRITE!!! Eventually, the pieces will fall into place, and you’ll actually begin your narrative. That’s a day to remember, believe me! You may end up discarding some of those early words in favor of more appropriate later ones, but that’s okay. It’s allowed. But an even better day will be the day you type those two magic words – The End. I can still recall the day I typed those words at the end of my first completed book. It was Super Bowl Sunday, January 31, 1988. It was during that game that my two wonky friends put my first computer together for me so I could retire my typewriter. Which I did, very happily, the next day.

One last word of advice for this week. Once you’ve started writing, do NOT print or re-read immediately. Do this once a week, max, until you get on your feet with the process. You’ll only delay and confuse yourself. We’ll talk about this more in the future, too.

Your only task now is to – WRITE!!! Have at it. Good speed to you!

If you have questions or comments, please send me an e-mail: