Off to WFC I go

A friend stopped me at a local business/social function a few days ago and asked me how “Dreams of Ivory and Gold” was doing. He had read the book so we talked for a few minutes about the story and some mutual favorite authors before he moved on. Before he walked away, however, he leaned in close and said, “I don’t know how you find time to do it all with your schedule.”

As he left, I considered what he had said and, yes, my schedule leaves a lot to be desired. I still work between 60-65 hours per week. I have four kids, all still in school, so that means clubs and meetings and horse shows and karate lessons/tournaments and weight room workouts and…. you get the idea.

That often does not leave a lot of time for my writing. But since my last post a month ago, a lot of has been happening despite the time constraints. Since October 4:

1) I have had three short stories accepted into anthologies/magazines for print.
2) I finished editing my latest novel.
3) I attended a question-and-answer at a book club in Columbus. One of the month’s selections for the club had been Dreams and the members asked me to come in and talk about the book and the process of writing.
4) I plotted out and researched the sequel to Dreams. In fact, as the plotting came together, it became obvious the overriding story arc needed to finish in a third book so the series will now be a trilogy.
5) Despite most of my writing needing to be accomplished sometime between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. (before getting up and starting the new day again), I now have a good start on the second book and plan on having a first draft done in the first couple of weeks in December.

WFC2My friend would probably only shake his head harder if he knew I was going to be attending the World Fantasy Convention in Washington D.C. later this week. But as I was reminded at ConText in Columbus a few weeks ago, attending these conventions are a necessary part of being a published (or trying to publish) author.

These conventions offer a multitude of discussion panels on a wide variety of writing and industry topics. You could walk into one room and find a best selling author talking about their process when they plot or world build. The next room may offer a view of where a certain genre is headed or what agents/publishers are currently searching for to sign.

But for me, the biggest opportunities at the conventions are the chances to meet people in person that I have “known” for years and to network with industry professionals. For instance, I found my current publisher through a writing group buddy that first read my work several years ago but all of our interaction has been digitally. He and I will meet in person for the first time this week.

I know other authors, editors, illustrators, and public relations people who I have exchanged ideas with or worked with for months, if not years. Many of them will be in Washington D.C. this week as well. There will also be people who I have only a passing acquaintance but who I want to get to know better because of their work.

Invariably, there will be at least one conversation that sticks out and remains in my memory forever from these conventions. At ConText in September, that conversation happened on Saturday night.

It had been a long day. I had been in panels or in the dealer room with the AKP crew all day. I had screwed around and missed lunch in the con suite and supper was pushed back so we could continue to talk to people. By the time we finally got out, it was later than normal so we just ended up eating at a nearby bar/grille. By the time we finished, the clock was pushing midnight on a long, long day.

But then we started talking about writing and the topic ended up on whether to plot novels or to just write in a free manner, going where the story takes you. That talk with a handful of other writers and a couple of publishing industry people turned out to be one of the best writing discussions I have ever had. My publisher definitively called it the best convention talk she had ever been a part of.

And that is why I am making time this week to go to the World Fantasy Convention. Hopefully I will shake the hands of some friends (new and old) and get into a late night discussion that will stay with me for years.

I will try to check in from the convention, either here or on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Hopefully I will have some good news about my future projects.

The thing he would not kill

Why does the hero always need to wear the white hat?

That is a typical question to ask of protagonists as a reader ages and reaches a certain level of life experience. When we are kids, life is a lot more black-and-white. The good guys always do the right thing and the bad guys have no motivation except for spite or greed. There were no shades of gray, just right and wrong.

But as we grow older, we begin to see the world in various shades of gray.

SamSpadeTake Humphrey Bogart. In this publicity photo, he is dressed as Sam Spade, the detective from “The Maltese Falcon.” Spade is the good guy, the shamus who cracks the case while using his brain instead of a roscoe.

But Spade was not squeaky clean. He was a womanizer who was sleeping with his partner’s wife. He has no problem with beating up smaller men that he can manhandle and he frequently uses his rapier wit to tear apart people who are not as smart. And when push comes to shove at the end of the tale, he turns the woman he liked into the police rather than help her escape.

Deep down, Spade is not a nice guy. But he is the hero of the story because despite all his faults, he sees the case through to the end.

I like characters with flaws – the bigger the better. Those are the characters that feel more real, more human. Books are more exciting when the protagonist hangs on the edge, drawn into only looking out for himself rather than the group, answering a needs that only he feels.

Flawed characters and anti-heroes add excitement to a story. Yes, they have solved the mystery/beaten the bad guys, but will it all fall apart at the end because of those faults?

I am reminded of this because a reader of “Dreams of Ivory and Gold” sent me a message a few days ago. They said they found themselves cheering on Greg Novara as the book continued, despite his quirks, his past, and his unpredictability. Then in the next sentence they told me how if they ever met Novara in real life, they would punch him in the nose.

I figure that is why I kept him around.

(The headline for this post is a partial quote from one of the most famous anti-heroes in literature, Shylock from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”

Shylock to Bassanio – “Hates any man the thing he would not kill.”)

Who are you?

Andy Weir

Gillian Flynn

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

John Scalzi

Keep those authors in mind for a few moments.

The publishing industry has been up in arms – and name calling and rock throwing and swearing and petition signing – for the past few weeks as Big 5 publisher Hachette and online mega-retailer Amazon have locked themselves into DEATH BATTLE 2014! Writing giants such as Hugh Howey with his gladius and James Patterson wielding a hasta have squared off against each other to decry the penny pinching of Hachette or the inhumanity of Amazon.

PrintingPress(For the record – Hachette is a very large corporation trying to make money. Amazon is a very, very large corporation trying to make money. Any authors who now find themselves caught in the middle of these two behemoths needs to remember that both companies have boards of directors and stockholders who could care less if either is nice to their authors unless it means more money in the coffers. Amazon is not completely wrong and Hachette is not completely wrong in this fight so the smart authors are protecting themselves and keeping as many publishing avenues open as possible so they do not find themselves cut out completely.)

However, this contract fight ends, an interesting side note has pounded a fist into the side of the heads of the big publishers.

No one knows who they are.

In the past few years because of the Internet and other technological advances, customers have become more comfortable dealing directly with the producers/retailers where they buy their goods and services. And the companies who have performed very well are those companies who have found ways to reach out and interact directly with the end users. This is a lesson the newspaper industry has been beaten over the head with the past few years and now it is publishing’s turn.

And no one knows who the Big 5 publishers are.

But everyone knows Amazon and that, ultimately, is where the “power” in this Hachette/Amazon power struggle lies. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at that list of authors again:

Andy Weir – “The Martian”

Gillian Flynn – “Gone Girl”

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child – “White Fire”

John Scalzi – “Redshirts”

These novels are the last four I have reviewed for our company’s entertainment magazine so I know all four of them were best sellers. Who published them?

For the record, in order: Crown, Crown, Grand Central Publishing, and Tor Books.

My guess is that no one reading this post knew all four publishers and I will back up that evaluation with a confession of my own. Neil Gaiman (“Neverwhere,” “American Gods,” “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”) is my favorite author and I did not know William Morrow was his publisher until I looked for the information for this post. I am a writer who pays attention to the industry so why would Regular Joe reader know who was publishing their favorite author’s books?

My guess is that fact, as much as the wheeling and dealing with Amazon might affect Hachette’s bottom line, is even more frightening to the company’s officials than the realization they have no real interaction with the end user except through someone like Amazon.

That cannot be a good feeling.

Who is in charge?

Just who is in charge of this monstrosity anyway?

I am winding down on my current work-in-process but last week I hit a small hiccup.

As I have said before (See the blog post, The Process), I am a plotter when it comes to my novels. Not all writers like to work through this method but I cannot imagine creating a 90,000-word book with multiple plotlines without some sort of guide to keep the story on track.

writerI also keep character sketches. The depth of the detail on the bios depends a great deal upon the importance of the characters themselves. The reason is obvious: consistency. How many times have you been watching a movie and suddenly realized the protagonist who was right-handed suddenly switched to holding the gun in his left hand near the end of the film? The same holds true in novels. No author wants to find out their protagonist stares longingly at the love interest with green eyes in chapter two and blue eyes in chapter 30. This practice actually helps me more with side characters who are involved in the plot for two chapters and then go away for ten before returning.

But just because I have a roadmap for my storylines and a relatively detailed character list, that does not mean the items cannot change. In “Dreams of Ivory and Gold,” the character of Morgan changed dramatically. I realized about a third of the way into writing the novel that I had written her too young. She needed to be older for some of her motivations to make sense. But the changes could not just happen to her. That meant Father Greene needed to be older as well since they had been classmates as children. The change dictated movement in her brothers’ ages, the ages of her nieces and nephews, etc.

I also routinely add to or take away from points in the plot either for brevity or to close a gap in the reader’s knowledge of the story or about a character. Sometimes things I had planned just don’t work. Or, even better, sometimes I think of something that had never occurred to me when I was planning.

And that happened to me last week.

I was within six chapters of the end of my WIP, “Reset” (working title), when in the middle of a sentence I stopped typing and stared at my computer screen. My protagonist was in the middle of narrowing down his suspects when I realized I had him taking too big a leap to the final answer. He needed to make the wrong assumption – chase one more red herring, if you will – before he discovered the killer.

And just as importantly, the red herring was right in front of me.

So I wrote in an answer to the question that my protagonist asked, one that I had never imagined until that moment. It added another chapter to the end of the book but it also deepened the growing tension as I built toward the climax. Best of all, it kept the conclusion within the character’s personality, something I had been building with the reader for more than 80,000 words at that point. All of that is good because I was on top of the story and realized it needed to move in a slightly different direction.

But I could not help but wonder about some of my friends who are writers who believe their characters are in charge of the storylines. You see, they believe the writer is only there to put down the words describing the novel unfolding from the characters they created.

I was once in a critique group where a friend started off with this terrific story. She had created deeply flawed characters, multiple plotlines promising a whirlwind of action, and an intriguing main conflict. The first few chapters she turned in for the group to read were amazing.

Then, the wheels started to wobble. Another subplot was followed by still another. Characters diverged even farther apart. On their own, each individual chapter was well-written but the story itself began to careen wildly out of control. At one point another group member and I asked her what was happening to the story and she sheepishly bowed her head. “My characters are going off in crazy directions,” she said. “I don’t know where the story is headed.”

She is not the only writer I have heard say this before. Many times I have heard others announce excitedly that their characters have hijacked the story and found a whole new storyline/direction/ending.

I do not understand that thinking. This author is in charge of the characters he created. That means sticking to the personalities, making plot decisions based upon those bios, but in the end, still in charge of the outcome.

So the next time you are halfway through a book and suddenly find yourself wondering why the plot just veered off in a weird direction, you may have been hijacked by the characters.

And as for my friend who said her characters took control of her plot, he wheels finally fell off her novel. It has been nearly ten years of effort and she has still not finished her book.

But that’s not me

I’m not Greg Novara.

I’m also not Father Roger Greene, R.J. Dowland, Rev, Stick, or Ted Prince. In fact, none of the characters I have ever created are me.

Are there parts of my personality in some of my characters? Sure. Are there parts of my friends and family represented in a novel or two? Absolutely.

But using bits and pieces from real life is part of being an author – observing life and using it in order to (hopefully) write something entertaining for readers. I remember sitting in a shopping mall during the Christmas madness season a few years ago. By that time of the day my wife and I had been shopping long enough I was just a glorified pack mule so I grabbed a seat in the middle of the aisle and piled up the bags around me while she went into the next couple of stores. I began watching a gentleman sitting a few feet away – the way he was dressed, his mannerisms, the sound of his voice as he said hello, the look on his face when his wife came to collect him.

In the 15 minutes I watched this man, I created a whole backstory about his life: why he was wearing an odd little hat, how he got to that point, and who he was. When he left, I had the beginnings of a side character for one of my stories. And it was all because of my observations of him.

But my character was not him.

I bring this up now because a friend of mine was called out a couple of weeks ago by a reader of one of his novels. This person berated the author, calling him all kinds of nasty names and assuming he knew my friend and his beliefs. This person just “knew” my friend was evil incarnate because the main character was not a nice guy. In fact, the protagonist was an anti-hero, someone intentionally written to not be perfect.

Writers create faults within characters in order to make them interesting. As an example, think back on some of your favorite books and the heroes in them. Were they infallible? Did they always do exactly the right thing? If so, then what they probably ended up being were one-dimensional, flat actors in a predetermined play.

Real people have faults. Life is messy. If an author has chosen to use an anti-hero as their protagonist, part of the conflict within the story might be whether or not they can clean their act up enough to do the right thing by the last page. By the same token, using a generally good man/woman in the lead role who does something bad in the course of 400 pages does not make them an unlikable character.

Faults are what make characters interesting. Just remember those faults do not necessarily belong to the author as well.

…And we walked uphill to school in snow this high

Hi, my name is Kirk and I like books.

(I will wait for the chorus of hellos.)

Hard copy books.

(Silence.)

At least that is what I imagine the response would be if you watch the trends of book sales and listen in on a lot of author/reader conversations.

oldmanbookBefore you think I am somebody who just doesn’t want to change, I am usually one of the first people in my group to try new technology so I do not consider myself a technophobe in any way. I read a lot of digital media, whether that be e-zines, newspapers, or research. I also understand the tremendous leap forward in convenience e-books have provided for both readers and people within the industry. I spoke with an agent in New York City a few years ago and she pointed out how big a change good e-readers made to her business. A long-time agent, she said the week after she purchased her e-reader she carried a purse to work on Friday.

What? Why is that a big deal?

She went on to say that like most agents, she did a lot of power reading of manuscripts, partials, and queries over the weekend. For years she had carried a large canvas bag into work on Fridays, filled it with paper printouts, and toted the whole load home. However, with the e-reader, she loaded everything she wanted to read digitally, slipped it into a normal purse, and traveled home without worrying about dislocating a shoulder.

That ease of use is just as important to regular readers. I understand how important it is for someone to just pack a Kindle when they hop onto the airplane or go to the beach on vacation. I understand how nice it is to have a great deal of their personal library with them wherever they carry their e-reader. I also understand the importance of privacy. During the initial rise of the sales of e-books, I read a publishing industry analyst who said without e-readers, the “Fifty Shades” books would never have been as huge a hit as they [roved to be. His reasoning was that while some women may not care if people noticed them reading the series, he opined that many women would have been hesitant to read books that others may find… slutty (His term, not mine.). Of course, once the “Fifty Shades” sales reached a certain point, a tipping point, they became more acceptable to a larger group and the stigma dissipated.

And I have not even started on the price difference. A voracious reader can fill their yearly habit for a fraction of the cost if they choose to purchase e-books over physical copies.

So, with all those benefits for e-books, why do I still choose to read exclusively hard copy?

Because I like the feel of a book in my hand when I am lying in bed reading. I like the texture of the pages and crackle of the spine the first time you read a book. I like being able to walk into my office without having any idea what I am interested in reading that day and scanning over row after row, title after title. I like being able to loan a good book to a friend – preferably a copy that is dog-eared and well-worn. I like knowing the books I have on the shelves will be there tomorrow and the next day for me, as well as down the road for my children and grandchildren. (If you think you can do that with e-books, you had better read your agreements again. Amazon reminded Kindle owners just last week that when you “purchase” a book, you are really only leasing it and they can take it away from you at any time under certain circumstances.)

So, even though a vast majority of my friends, readers and authors alike, like e-books as their first choice, I am going to stick to hard copies. In the end, I see reading as an entertainment experience. So just like the audiophile who insists on listening to music on vinyl or the movie watcher who insists on the 72-inch hi-definition television, I prefer to enjoy my recreation a certain way. In this case that means a three-pound, 500-page book on my chest as I lean back in the recliner and read.

Hi, my name is Kirk and I read hard copy books.

Why would I be a member of a club that would let me in?

For some time there has been a fracturing in the author community over the opportunities provided by technological advancements. Namely: self-publishing.

Twenty years ago, self-published books usually fell into one of three categories:

1) Written for such a small group of people that it was not viable to be commercially produced. A genealogical book about your family history, as an example.
2) Written in such a way that no agent or publishing house knew what to do with it. It could have been a terrific novel but how do you market a science fiction romance between a werewolf and an alien that takes place in 16th century Scotland?
3) Just a bad book.

Those were the reasons. That’s it, end of discussion. Go on, go ask someone in the publishing industry to remember back to that time and they will tell you that only unmarketable books were self-published. I’ll wait.

Okay, you’re back. But a funny thing happened in the past twenty years – a funny thing that has continued to pick up speed with every passing year. Ebooks came along and readers liked them. Suddenly the outlay cost to produce a book dropped dramatically. Then on-demand printers were able to print and ship small counts of books. Without the high cost of printing an initial run and stocking bookstores, independent publishers began popping up like weeds.

But the publishing industry shrugged, said “They’re still our cast offs so they can’t be any good” and went on their way.

But then that funny thing happened again. Readers stood up and said the publishing industry was wrong. They said that not everything that was self-published was crap. Authors like Hugh Howey and Sylvia Day sold a ton of self-published books. While those two and others are outliers, now there are hundreds, if not thousands, more who are making a few thousand dollars per book. And who knows how many they might have been able to sell with a publishing house marketing department behind them. Authors who could have gone through the big publishing houses decided not to wait on a 14-month publishing cycle and they put the book out themselves in three months. Independent publishers started selling more units with authors who did not want to hurry up and wait.

Recently a lot of the publishing industry has been taking notice of these authors. So have movie and television companies. Who does that leave languishing in the rear to recognize this sea change in the industry?

The authors’ own industry groups.

Go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website and look up the qualifications for membership. Go to the Horror Writers Association and other industry groups and you will not find full voting membership requirements that make allowances for selling self-published or, in some cases, independent publisher works. (The HWA recently announced they are looking into changing their requirements so kudos to them.)

So why does this matter? Because a lot of small newspapers and magazines rely upon these industry groups for vetting. They receive dozens of press releases every month about author interviews and new books and generally speaking they do not have the manpower to check out all of these possible stories.

Do you want to interview Joe Smith who just wrote a sequel in his vampire series? Maybe, maybe not, but I don’t have time to research to discover if Smith’s last book sold three copies or 30,000 copies. Do you want to interview HWA Active member Joe Smith? That one addition is probably enough to make me take the time to check out Smith’s work.

So what really happens to authors who are selling a good number of units, making a good bit of money, is that they are probably being held back by the very groups who were started to encourage and help them. To return to one of our outliers, Hugh Howey sold tens of thousands of units of his Wool series online before he signed his print contract with Simon & Schuster and a movie contract with 20th Century Fox. Shouldn’t the tens of thousands of units sold have been enough for full membership into an industry group? Does it really take someone to bust out as big as Howey to make the grade? Why should someone who sold twice as many self-published books as a mid-list author who published through an industry house not be recognized for that work?

I am not talking about the industry groups lowering their standards, that would defeat the purpose. What I want the groups to think about is recognizing the changes in the publishing industry.

(The headline is a twist on the Groucho Marx quote: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”)

Will Flash Gordon escape the Pit of Doom?

Flash2When can one of the oldest forms of writing suddenly become one of the hot new trends?

Answer: When readers’ tastes and new product delivery methods mesh.

Despite what my kids think, I am not old enough to remember the days of serial radio shows or the Saturday movie shorts. However, when it comes to publishing fiction these days, what was once old is now new again when it comes to serializing stories.

SherlockSerializing stories goes back a lot farther than most people realize. Charles Dickens published a great deal of his work in smaller chunks long before they ever appeared in book form. “The Old Curiosity Shop” is an example of his using serialization. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published two of his Sherlock Holmes novels (“The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Valley of Fear”) first in monthly installments in magazines. A list of other well-known authors from decades past who used this method would more than fill a few pages. Serialization in writing remained popular until at least during the pulp magazine days of the 1950s before slowly fading into the background, never quite dying out but becoming more of a fringe product.

But now a whole new crop of authors are using serialized stories as a way of creating a reader base and (gasp!) making money. My first recent memory of an author doing this was Stephen King. He serialized “The Green Mile” in six small paperbacks over a five-month period in 1996. The experiment worked for him but he still sold a lot more copies when they were all compiled into novel form. But in my opinion, he was ahead of the time. He was hamstrung by the need for new technology.

Enter Amazon and Kindle (or similar products). Today’s new crop of writers who are using serialization are using the Internet and e-books to deliver the segments. In most cases a reader can purchase the whole story up front and then each chapter is delivered automatically to an electronic reading device, like a Kindle, on a regular schedule.

And who can argue with the success. Hugh Howey has become a worldwide, best-selling author in digital and print based largely upon the serialization phenomenon that became “Silo.” Also, don’t forget that the “50 Shades” franchise began life as serialized fan fiction. (Fan fiction is a different topic for a different day but I will admit that it is something that I just don’t understand.)

From a writer’s perspective, I can understand the lure of serialized stories. There is an immediacy to the process because you write on a deadline and then it is printed, sometimes within days of your finishing. Pay begins almost immediately and the product is lower priced, enticing a larger fan base.

Compare that to the traditional time frame of writing a novel, sending it out to publishing houses, getting accepted, being put on the publishing schedule, then waiting for royalty checks to arrive (very simplified). That process can take possibly two years. Even with the advent of self-publishing it can still be months invested. That is a lot of time spent working before the pennies start trickling in to your bank account. Serialization makes a lot of sense.

But on the consumer side of the coin, I also need to consider the way I like to read. I may not touch a book for two weeks because I am heavily into writing. Then, some Saturday evening, I may grab a book, plop down on the couch, and read until noon on Sunday, ripping through 500 pages in one shot. That would be tough to do if I need to wait for another week for the next story installment.

Plus, I do not think serialization makes sense for my writing style. One of my critique partners once told me I could make a novel out of a grocery list (Thanks, Michele.). I think it was a compliment? Anyway, her point was that I enjoyed producing longer works with deep character developments and intricate plots. You can certainly do this in segments but think back to Flash Gordon – every show ended with him in mortal danger, a cliffhanger that made the viewer want to come back the next Saturday and dish out another nickel to see how he escaped. I am not saying I won’t attempt the form some day, but for now I am still on the fence.

If anyone wants to read more on the whole serialization trend, Jane Friedman had an excellent blog post on the subject. You can read it by clicking here:

Serial Fiction Changing Publishing

The Process

I was recently texting back and forth with a friend of mine who also writes. At the end of the conversation, she said something to the effect that it was time to go review the “crap” she had written the day before.

I laughed when I read the text because it reminded me of the process I go through when I am writing a novel. Every writer is different in how their process moves along but these are typically the stages of my works. Think of it as the seven stages of grief of my writing:

1) The Idea – I have talked a little bit before about where I get my ideas so I will not go too far in depth here. Sometimes a book starts as a question. Sometimes it is a situation or a character that makes me think about their story. At this point, I usually have a guarded optimism about the project.

2) The Planning – At this stage I begin looking at the idea with the thought of how well it holds up to novel length. I have always been a plotter. Not all writers work this way and I have good friends who go into their writing and just let the story and the characters take them wherever they want to go. (Personal pet peeve – Some of these friends claim their characters sometimes “hijack” a story and take it off in different directions. I believe that I am the author and I am in control of the characters, not the other way around.) So I will sit down and loosely plot out the beginning of the book. And when I say “loosely,” I mean loosely. Each chapter of plotting may consist of only three or four bullet points or sentences or it could be much longer and more detailed. This is where I begin to see the structure and chronology of the story. I will often move chapters for better timing or add chapters because one of the storylines has been neglected. I typically plot out the first 15-20 chapters, half the book, or enough to give me a good idea of where it is going. I never plot the entire book at this point for a reason I will give later. This is also the point where I will do any research I need. For instance, when I was plotting out “Dreams of Ivory and Gold,” I realized I had several scenes that were taking place inside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City so I researched the layout of the church and incorporated some interesting tidbits about its construction. This is also where I decide if I am going forward with the idea in novel form. Sometimes the idea only stands up to short story length. Sometimes a character is only a character or a question/situation is only part of another book. But, if the idea holds up, I am usually very excited about the project by now.

3) The Beginning – Notice what I call this stage: The Beginning. Up until now I may have spent anywhere from several days to a couple of months on the project and I do not have one word down on the page yet. There is no book. This point is where that all starts. With the research and the original plotting still fresh in my mind I am only now beginning to write. I am usually so excited about the project the chapters just leap out and I often catch myself thinking about the book even when I am not writing. THIS is the fun time.

4) The Work – By the time I am halfway through writing a novel, I am hit by how much work it takes to put 70,000-100,000 words down on paper in a coherent manner that makes sense and is entertaining. At this point I have – hopefully – settled into a rhythm with the characters and the plot. The reason I did not plot out the whole book is that I have definitely found holes and I have added or deleted scenes or entire storylines. I usually alternate between writing and plotting, trying to stay several chapters ahead in my planning from the story on paper. The initial excitement has worn off but I love writing so I am happy.

5) The Crap – I suck as a writer. This story sucks. The characters I loved so much a few weeks ago are flat and uninteresting – and they suck, too. Everything about this story is just pure crap that needs to be destroyed before someone happens to read it and it sets back literature thousands of years. I don’t even want to write an email because that will probably suck, too. And all of that is how I feel on the good days when I am writing during this stage.

6) The Close – This stage takes place in the final few chapters of the book. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The twists and red herrings are settling into place. The final resolution makes sense. My protagonist is showing real development and growth. The book is completed and I am happy and excited – the sort of tired excited you get at the end of a race or a game.

7) The Return – This has always been one of the hardest parts for me to do. Take that book that I have worked on for months and…. do nothing. Put it in a corner. Hide it under the bed. Don’t read it, don’t look at it, don’t even think about it. Put your lovingly crafted masterpiece to the side and do nothing with it for three weeks, a month – however long it takes for me to have some distance between the work and the evaluation. The longest I have ever gone at this stage is almost a year. Then, one day, pull it out and read it. If I have waited long enough, then the book will almost feel like someone else wrote it. If everything has gone well, you will enjoy it. You will love the characters all over again. You will like the plot twists and the ending. Sure, I will be making notes in the margins as I read but these are for major plot points – rewrite this scene, how did I spell that character’s name three different ways?, this reference makes no sense because I pulled an earlier scene out – I am strictly looking for the flow of the story and not a grammatical editing. But that is only if the book works. I still have a Bottom Drawer Novel on my computer. Every writer has at least one of them. These are works that you get to this point and you realize that you were write in Stage 5 – this book really does suck and no amount of reworking is going to make it readable. If there is a writer out there who says they do not have one of these lying around somewhere, gathering dust, then they are not reading their own work with a critical eye. It just happens. But if I make it through this stage and still like it, then I have written a book.

There are plenty of things left to do before the book will see the light of day. Beta readers need to look at it and tell you if they also believe the plot and the characters work. It still needs a professional edit. And I mean professional. Pay someone you trust to do a line-by-line edit because I believe one of the hardest things to do in the world is to edit your own work. You can get it close but it will never be fully polished until someone else grabs the red pen and goes to work. Unfortunately, this is also the part that most writers skip and then they wonder why they are never able to be published.

Then, and only then, is my book ready to start the marketing process to either an agent or indie publishing house. With the rise of self-publishing through Amazon and others, those options are open as well.

But marketing is a story for a different day.

I’ve got an idea

Last year I spoke to a group of freshmen and sophomore high school students. The topic of discussion was the difference between writing for the newspaper and writing fiction for entertainment. I brought along some newspapers and a few books, including one of my own. I even wrote a lede and the beginning of a news article for “Star Wars,” going so far as to read the first page of the novel and the news article draft to demonstrate the differences.

We had a few minutes at the end of class and I opened it up for questions. As you could expect from young high school students, there were some pretty basic questions about being an author (How much do you make? Do you have an agent? etc.). But more than one student centered around the question:

Where do you get your story ideas?

It was a good question, one that I had never thought about myself but I had asked about some of my favorite authors.

I have a five-book series that I began based upon my envisioning the final line in the final scene of the last book. I also have one work that is based entirely upon the main protagonist’s faults and how he is trying to overcome them (based upon a person I saw at a shopping mall during Christmas).

“Dreams of Ivory and Gold,” which will be released in April, began very simply as a series of questions: Throw out conventional fiction ideas of living forever as a 30-year-old. What if being nearly immortal meant puberty lasted for decades? What if you were living forever in a job you hated? What would that do to a person’s mind? How would they live their life?

“Jacked” (YA currently being marketed) began as a very vivid dream where the protagonist was being chased down a crumbling city street and every time he touched an object, it turned on.

My current WIP started as the question: Which is a better life, one where a person is living in a fictional world but is happy, or one where they are miserably struggling through the real world?

Because I have such a love for reading, I have always tried to find ways to incorporate my kids into my novels as a way of exciting them about reading as well, even when the subject matter was too old for them at the time. I have used their personalities for characters, mentioned their names, and written for their age groups.

So it really should not have come as a surprise when my youngest daughter crawled up beside me on the couch the weekend after New Year’s and announced, “I’ve got an idea.”

(Those words from this daughter can send shivers down my spine because she tends to hold onto an idea for a long time. This is the same girl who came home from pre-school one day several years ago and said we should address her as Princess Toots. The “Princess” part has long since gone by the wayside but “Toots” is still her family nickname.)

So I listened to Toots’ idea which really consisted of about two sentences, most of which were blatant rip-offs of books that were already on the market. So I grabbed a notepad and began writing down ideas while we talked.

What if the main character was this? What if this happened to her? She needs help so what if her companions were these people? What is her ultimate goal?

We talked for about an hour and I put the notepad in my office. This past weekend, I saw it lying on the corner of my writing table and picked it up, smiling at the memory of Toots and I talking.

Then I started reading what I wrote down. It wasn’t bad. There was a strong protagonist who had enough faults to develop through the story. There was inner and outer conflict. There was a cast of supporting characters and an antagonist to defeat. Upon further reflection what I saw was not just one book but two Middle Grade books in a series.

My conclusion is that – at least for me – I never quite know where my ideas will come from.

Oh, and I should continue to listen when Toots says she has an idea.

(** By the way – the photo in the header for this website was taken by Toots. The idea for that began with, “I’ve got a vision…**)