What Is This Blog Post About?

Into The DistanceSometimes an idea for my next post on this blog comes to me in a flash, all at once, all written in my head. Other times I struggle. Sometimes the struggle is to come up with an idea, sometimes the struggle is to pick from way-too-many ideas teeming around in my head. Today the struggle is that I have all kinds of disjointed thoughts about writing flitting around back and forth like an unruly flight of starlings, some near misses but never a collision, and no single thought amounts to a full and complete blog post. I'm trying to decide if any combination of thoughts might amount to one. Let's explore together, shall we?

One thought came to me as I binged on several movies and TV shows in rapid succession during a recent convalescence, interspersed with news coverage of the recent "peaceful" transition of power in Washington DC. No, this isn't a political post, as such. However, I saw vast numbers of people who desperately clung to their own paradigm of the world, so consumed with insecurity in their own beliefs that they simply - and quite publicly - flat-out refused to accept any reality that clashed with what they so desperately wished to be true, in the face of facts quite to the contrary. Often making up things out of whole-cloth in a shocking attempt to negate reality, and convincing themselves fully that their made-up things were true.

This got me to thinking about those who read what I, as a novelist, write. They are not reading my stories in a vacuum. They bring their own paradigm to the experience, as had I when I wrote it. To the degree that their paradigm clashes with mine, there is a sliding scale to which they are willing to continue reading. Some might accept my paradigm and still enjoy the story, perhaps even altering their own to some degree because of what they read. Some perhaps not, but still appreciating my vision of reality. Then again some, if the shift between my paradigm and theirs is too right-angle, might reject my story out of hand, some not even finishing it. Some who, I submit, are insecure in their own strata of beliefs, might feel threatened by my outlook, to the degree that they feel compelled to pen a particularly acid-laced rant in a review of my book.

I, myself, have only been unable to finish two or three fiction books because I couldn't tolerate the premise, but there was at least one book that I literally threw across the room in rage before I even knew what I was doing. Others I have put down it disgust, only that one gave me such a visceral reaction.

The point is, each reader who comes to peruse our work is diverse from any other at the margin, and in a spectrum those differences become vast. Can we predict what any one person is going to think of our writing? In some extreme cases perhaps, but at the margin I suggest it's impossible. There are just too many variables.

I often make the point that market chasing is a fool's games. Trying to read market trends and writing to what's currently selling is the quickest way to insanity, especially given how fast our market shifts. It's why the term "sell-out" is spoken with such disdain - people who attempt to do so fail more often than they succeed and often in the process lose sight of their own original motives for writing.

Just ask any published writer who sold the first book of a series that they wrote after years of market chasing. It's exciting at first...until they realize they have to write a sequel, and another, and yet more, all based on a premise they shopped for, not one for which they felt any real passion or love. Suddenly they're locked into a vortex of having to churn out book after book on a story line they feel no real connection to and invariably grow to hate. This also consumes all of their writing energy and time and leaves little or none for them to pursue the writing they always wanted to do from the beginning.

I have always encouraged other writers to write what they like to read, write what they love to write, write for themselves. The readers will come. The right readers. The ones who will love what you write because they can sense the love, the integrity, the heart with which you write. You will be much happier writing what you enjoy, and that will come through as well. You will write better because it's what you love. And you'll save yourself a lot of tail-chasing, teeth-gnashing, and head-to-brick-wall contact.

Advertise or Die

I recently had a brief email exchange with Janet Lane on a blog entry she was writing on the topic of book marketing, a topic that I hate. On later reflection I decided to add my own thoughts to hers, which you've no doubt read, precisely because I hate the topic so much.

(Janet: Forgive me if I step on your topic here, I walk only in your shadow.)

Much has been written about how writers are introverts and not easily given to socializing, networking, and schmoozing, all of it true. Marketing is my least favorite part of writing, and I strongly suspect I'm not alone. Marketing is hard for me, and while it comes easily to some, there are even those out there who claim they enjoy it but who are, empirically by observation, not very good at it. Marketing is an art, a skill, one not easily acquired and impossible to fake your way through.

First, when you advertise, remember that you are not marketing this one book. You are not even marketing your entire collection of publications. You are marketing yourself. You want to build an audience not just for your most recent release, but for future releases as well. Marketing yourself is entirely different than trying to sell a product. You have to give others a reason to read what you write, make them intrigued enough to do so, which means bragging on yourself. And yet, to stay likable, you can't come off as bragging about yourself. Doing something while not seeming to do it at all is like trying to pick up a pencil without actually picking it up.

We also live in a climate of very savvy consumers these days - people are very acutely aware of when you are trying to sell them something. Everyone has had the experience of being set upon by a salesman the moment we enter a store or used car lot - we cringe and recoil and are uncomfortable, even resentful, of this kind of hard-sell tactic. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth, and these days we are more likely to walk away having bought nothing than giving in to the pressure.

The term channel-hopping refers to the act of changing the channel on a television every time a commercial comes on. On-demand television must disable the fast-forward feature of their programs because they know, if given the freedom, viewers would much rather skip a commercial than watch it. Commercial-free streaming services have become ever more popular. Web browser ad-blockers sell quite well. I myself am a charter member of the national do-not-call list, and I faithfully report every unsolicited sales call I get. Hell, I never even answer the door unless I'm expecting someone. In short, consumers want to buy, but by and large hate to be sold something.

So now we have to market ourselves while NOT bragging on ourselves, and sell books without seeming to sell books. A more impossible task was never set before mankind.

What's left to us? Mostly indirect sales techniques. In personal appearances you'll notice people will avoid your table. I like to engage them on something entirely unrelated to the books so obviously stacked around me. I comment on the weather, or something they are wearing, or on anything else. I do not address the books I am selling until they ask. I answer their questions succinctly, never going on-and-on or offering any information they did not ask about. And the minute they pick up a book and start to leaf through it I shut up and walk away. From that point on they will buy or not, you have no further control over it.

If you don't keep a blog, start one. But don't write about your books and how good they are and how everyone should buy one. Instead, interview other writers or industry professionals, or write about topics peripherally related to the themes covered in your books. If your books are mysteries, write about other unsolved crimes in current media. If you write romances, then blog about prominent figures who have recently gotten married or divorced. You get the idea.

Keep your books, with buy links, prominently visible on your blog pages, just don't try to sell them directly. The hope is that people who happen upon your blog and like what you have to say on other topics will be spurred enough to check out your books and maybe - hopefully - buy them.

(NOTE: For god's sake, don't get political in your blog. In our current hotly charged, cavernously divided political climate it takes very little to alienate half of your consumer base with an off-hand reference to topics about which very few agree. Steer clear.)

Participate in events, such as book fairs, book giveaways, library drives, etc. Volunteer for things such as public speaking engagements, guest blogs, organizations that dovetail with the topics you write about. Send letters to editors, comment on others' blogs, leave thoughtful reviews for books by other writers on places like Amazon and GoodReads.

The point is, marketing is never going to be easy, and it gets harder as our industry changes. Your best bet at selling more books is to keep your name as prominent and visible as possible while never hard-selling your books or alienating possible buyers. Finding that marketing sweet-spot is as elusive as that cat hair tickling your nose that you can't quite seem to find. And frankly just as annoying. But keep at it - you're only certain to fail at the things you don't try.

“The Silver Moment”

It's a term I made up to describe a twist in fiction that can make the "black moment" more shocking to a reader. The black moment is a part of the basic structure of fiction that has been knocking around for centuries.

  • The inciting incident.
  • The mounting tension.
  • Complications.
  • Climax.
  • The black moment.
  • Denouement.

There are as many variations on this structure as there are writers who write about writing, but roughly this is the basic formula for your plot in fiction. Everything else is a refinement on this.

The black moment is the part of the story just before everything is resolved when things seem to be as bad as they can get for our protagonist, when all seems lost and the antagonist is about to win.

The silver moment, as I call it, is infrequent in fiction but you should recognize it when you see it. It comes just before the black moment. It is the part of our story when, in contrast to the black moment, everything seems to have worked out for our protagonist, when all seems to have been resolved as it should have been and the good guys have won. The silver lining of the cloud that has been hanging over our protagonist throughout the book has, in effect, been found.

In this case, the black moment comes when the antagonist, thought defeated, reappears out of the blue with one last card to play, one last-ditch effort at accomplishing his goal, or at the very least, at destroying those who prevented him from achieving those goals in the silver moment.

Rogue Agenda by Kevin Paul TracyFor example, in Rogue Agenda the terrorists have all been rounded up by the Feds, the Al-Serhemni family have successfully escaped to Canada, and while Lainie still has an arson/manslaughter rap hanging over her head the reader knows she is innocent and, if there is justice, will be exonerated. But wait...what about the hit man who started this whole mess by trying to kill the CIA agent and has been stalking Lainie ever since? For god's sake, check the closet before you go to sleep!

Presence of Malice by Kevin Paul TracyIn th conclusion of my book Presence of Malice the villain, Dr. Gerald Gannery, is wanted by several Federal agencies and our heroes - Jet, Gregory, Patricia, and Paul - are enjoying their victory and have let their guards down. Unaware - but about to find out - that Gannery has found the brownstone where Jet has hidden his paraplegic brother and is aware of the money that his henchman tried to bribe the fixer with...and is now driven by a murderous thirst for vengeance.

The silver moment can definitely be overused. If the reader comes to expect it, it loses its impact to make the black moment come as a greater surprise and seem even blacker. But if used judiciously, it can be an effective tool in bringing a shocking and satisfying story to your readers.

TO SERIALIZE OR NOT TO SERIALIZE

The Cereal AisleSERIALIZE (sîr′ē-ə-līz′) verb 1. to transform cookies, donuts, waffles, french toast, crunch berries, etc. into miniature candy-like form to be dredged in milk and consumed for breakfast. 2. to broadcast or publish (something, such as a story) in separate parts over a period of time.

No sooner was my latest thriller Presence of Malice released than readers began asking if there was to be a sequel or series following it. To be honest, when writing Malice I never envisioned it as a series. It was always to be a stand-alone thriller, one of many other non-related thrillers I plan to release. I already have two ongoing series, taking on a third is, frankly, daunting.

On one hand, Malice is by far the best received book I've ever released, and not to capitalize on it's popularity by releasing a sequel or series feels like leaving money on the table. On the other hand, my writing muse has never been very motivated by monetary concerns, but mostly on whether or not I have a worthy story to tell.

On the other hand (I know, that's three hands) you always want to please your readers, and to have them clamoring for more of something you've written is not only awfully flattering, it also makes you want to do it, if for no other reason than to please them. JK Rowling can't seem to leave the Harry Potter franchise alone - even though she promised after the release of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows that there would be no new Harry Potter books, she has repeatedly tweeted or blogged new information about the wizarding world she created in those books, then released The Tales of Beedle the Bard, then the movie Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them followed by a book of the same name, then the stage play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child...

The point is, it's hard to walk away from something you so enjoyed writing and that readers so enjoy reading. So while it never started that way, Presence of Malice will most likely become a third ongoing series, if perhaps more episodic than serialized. In the end, while you may have other stories teaming around in your head demanding to be written, it's also irresistible to go back a revisit old friends and favorite villains.

Ah, had I but world enough and time!

Saul Goodman Wants Your Book

I was going to call this blog “Saul Goodman wants to review your contract” but then no one would read it because contracts are boring. And everyone knows that Susan Spann is the lawyer you want to work with. Duh.

Who is Saul Goodman? Come on, guys, he’s the lawyer in Breaking Bad. And if you don’t know what Breaking Bad is, it’s one of the most electrifying television shows ever produced that will devour the soft parts of your soul and leave you gasping like a meth addict overdosing on linoleum.

Better Call Saul is a spin-off/prequel to Breaking Bad and I’ve been watching it. At first, I wasn’t going to even bother because I like new content and Breaking Bad left me both satisfied and scarred. I had to seek PTSD counseling after that brain-spilling final season.

I can dig a good spin-off. I followed Joanie and Chachi to their own show from Happy Days. What’s Happy Days? It’s exactly like Breaking Bad only set in the 1950s and deals with soda jerks instead of meth addicts. Compare and contrast Tucco and the Fonze for homework.

While watching Better Call Saul, I pondered what I could learn about storytelling. What follows are my insights. In pseudo-legal document/outline form.

  1. In which, Aaron Michael Ritchey, hereafter known as the party of the first part, declares that voice trumps story.
    1. Part of the thrill of Better Call Saul is that it uses the same vision and voice of Breaking Bad. Even though the story is less intense, part of the reason why I like Better Call Saul is that I get to step back into the crime-ridden sleaziness of Albuquerque’s underbelly. The desert, the filth, the desperation, the violence, it’s like going home. If your home is San Quentin. But that was part of the wonder of Breaking Bad. This is one of the reasons why Roger Ebert gave The Godfather Part III a favorable review…it wasn’t that it was a good movie, but it felt like visiting family. In this way, voice can trump story.
  2. In pursuant to section one, the party of the first part, points out the importance of a “stakes character.”
    1. So as an audience, we know that the hero isn’t going to be killed. They are safe. Yes, a bunch of horrible things might happen to them, but they won’t be killed. And in a prequel, this is doubly true since we know Saul and his cronies live long enough to be in the next show. However, a stakes character is a secondary character that we like, that is in danger of dying, and that the hero loves.
    2. In Breaking Bad, the lives of Walter White’s family and friends were at stake, and in some ways, you could argue that Jesse Pinkman was a stakes character.
    3. Saul has his mentally ill brother, and really, the whole show seems to be revolving around Saul and his relationship to his family. It’s powerful and makes the show work. Saul might not die, but his brother? Well…
  3. Without any extraneous words, the party of the first part, hereafter known as the blogger, points to the power of the franchise/series.
    1. Better Call Saul wouldn’t have been made if it hadn’t been for Breaking Bad.
    2. That’s not to say Better Call Saul isn’t a good show on i’s own, but it relies so much on the built-in audience of Breaking Bad that I don’t see anyone jumping right in without watching Breaking Bad.
    3. This might have meant death for Better Call Saul in past years, but now, we have Netflix and other streaming service so if you are curious about the new show, you can watch the old show in a massive binge.
    4. People like to lose themselves into other worlds, however vile and troubling the world might be. The more content available, the more people can binge and the more they want. That is why I’m working on The Juniper Wars Series, which will have a massive amount of content, including short stories written by other authors set in the world.
    5. And since I’m working with WordFire Press, we are nimble enough to release books as close together as possible. Notice, Netflix releases their own content in one lump dose do people can binge watch. I don’t watch shows until I can watch as many as I want. Weekly? Please, girlfriend. This isn’t the days of Joanie loves Chachi.
  4. The blogger posits that spin-offs are powerful because if you have good characters, people want more of that character.
    1. So in essence, write good characters, and if people like that character (Who didn’t love Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad?) write more stories for them. We now have so many platforms for fan-fiction as well as the ability to publish multiple books and multiple stories whenever we want.
    2. Well, hopefully. If we own the rights.
    3. Be careful of contracts that limit you. And if you are signing away your characters and world, your intellectual property, make sure that the contract includes Auric Goldfinger amounts of cash and make sure they will provide you minions.
    4. I have a minion clause in all my contracts. But no one ever signs them so I never get minions. Dammit!

 

So yes, I’ve been enjoying Better Call Saul. And when I’m either drawn or repulsed by a story, as a writer, it’s my duty to ask why. Why can’t I stop watching? What is going on that has me hooked?

Then I try and use those same techniques in my own work. Funny, though, seeing what other writers do (or don’t do) is a hellluva easier than putting those techniques into my own books.

But that’s the challenge, people. If it were easy, anyone would/could do it.

WRITING THEMES: Do we choose them? Or do they choose us? by Joan Johnston

Book ShamelessWhy do all my books have “abandoned or neglected children” as an underlying theme?  Until about book 25 (I’m writing book 57 now), when another writer pointed it out to me, I had no idea that this issue resonated throughout my writing.  I’d grown up in a family of seven children and my parents had remained married until my father died late in life.  So why was I writing about abandoned children?

When I asked my mother why I might have focused on this subject, she replied, “When you were four years old, your father (who was in the Air Force at the time) left to go to the Philippines and we stayed behind in Little Rock.  You took a photo of him to bed with you for a month, until it was in tatters, and cried yourself to sleep.”

Aha!  All questions answered.  I was “abandoned” when I was four years old and, according to my mother, didn’t see my father again for an entire year.  No wonder the topic of abandonment—and subsequent healing through love—pervades my books.

But as in my novels, mothers don’t always tell the truth.  Or at least, not the whole truth.

Recently, my sister Jeanne, who was one year older than I, died of complications from diabetes.  My cousin Ron wrote that he had “a nice story about Jeanne” to share with us.

Here’s what he said:  “I remember when your father was stationed at Langley, Virginia, my mother got the wild idea that she had to visit her baby brother [who was my father].  I know there were presents, so it was probably around Christmas.  We got in the car [in Baltimore] and drove down to your parents’ house.”

At the time Ronnie wrote about, my mother had a brand new baby (my sister, Jackie, born October 22), a three-year-old (me), a four-year-old (my sister Jeanne) and a five-year-old (my sister Joyce).  From Ron’s story it appears that she wasn’t getting much help from my father, and there wasn’t enough money to buy a refrigerator or pay for heat.

“When we left,” Ron finished, “we took Jeanne with us.  I don’t remember if she stayed a few weeks or a few months.”

Cousin Ron’s story provided answers to questions that had remained unanswered all my life, but which had appeared in my writing all along.  Apparently, in an effort to help out my overwhelmed mother, Jeanne was taken to live with my aunt’s family.

My sister Joyce and I have always been best friends, even though she’s daughter #1 and I’m daughter #3.  We shut Jeanne, daughter #2, completely out.  I’ve always wondered why.  Now I know.  Jeanne left.  She went away for three weeks—or three months.  But during that period, Joyce and I bonded. My mother never acknowledged having sent Jeanne away, so we were unaware of what had happened when we were children.

When Jeanne returned, my family immediately left Virginia and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where we stayed while my father moved to his new station in the Philippines.

Within the period of a year, I had lost my sister, who “disappeared” and then “reappeared,” then moved from one home to another, and then lost my father, who “disappeared” and didn’t “reappear” for an entire year, at which point we moved to the Philippines to join him.

This is a fascinating story all by itself.  I can see how I might have ended up writing about abandoned and neglected children.  But there’s more.

In December 2013, Harlequin reissued a book I wrote in 2002 called Sisters Found.  Interesting title.  I’d previously written a book called The Substitute Groom in which the two heroines, twin girls, were named Hope and Faith. I was at a dinner meeting when a Harlequin sales rep asked, “So where’s Charity?”

I sat there stunned.  And realized suddenly, “There’s a Charity!”

It doesn’t take much psychology to figure out that I wrote The Substitute Groom about myself and Joyce, completely excluding Jeanne, even though the names I chose suggested there was a third child.

What I wrote in Sisters Found, eleven years before I learned the story of what happened to my sister Jeanne, is little short of astonishing.

In Sisters Found I wrote that Faith and Hope weren’t twins, they were two of a set of triplets.  Charity was given away when she was two years old because her parents couldn’t afford to care for three children.

Charity confronts her parents about why she was given away in this wrenching scene from Sisters Found.

         “Why me?” she demanded.  “How did you choose? I want to know.”

          Her mother and father exchanged a glance before her Book Sisters Foundfather turned to her and said, “Of course we kept Faith,    because we would always love her as she is [with a missing hand], when others might not. Hope was the troublemaker,   the one who howled with colic. You were the most beautiful      of our three lovely daughters.”

          “We’re triplets,” Charity countered. “We look exactly alike.”

          “You were the prettiest, with deep brown eyes that saw so much,” he continued.  “Such a perfect baby, always   laughing, always smiling.”

          “Newborns don’t laugh or smile.”

          Her parents exchanged a troubled glance, and she remembered what her father had told her.  She’d been two years old when they’d given her away.  Had spent two years being loved by them, held by them, a part of them.

          “We tried so hard to keep all three of you,” her father said.  “But it wasn’t possible.  We knew that whoever became your parents would have to love you, because you were such a good child, such a happy baby.  We gave up our most precious child.  The one most certain to be loved by strangers.”

I don’t know if I actually heard a conversation such as that as a three-year-old, but I will always wonder how much truth there is in it.

Most authors I know write some consistent theme.  Mary Balogh’s books feature terrible family rifts that are mended through loving the right man.  Susan Mallery also writes about relationships that mend families.  Sandra Brown’s characters all have conflicts with authority.  Debbie Macomber’s books focus on family and faith.

I didn’t consciously choose to write about abandoned children, but the subject has found its way into every book I’ve written.  If you haven’t already done it, you might want to take a closer look at your own novels and see what you find.

I’m working now on a new series of Bitter Creek novels, Sinful, Shameless, and Surrender, which just happen to feature women who’ve been physically abandoned by their mother and emotionally abandoned by their father.  Imagine that.

I don’t think I can consciously change what I write.  Nor do I want to.  The powerful emotions that end up on the pages of my books come from the wounded child inside.  My sister’s death, as sad as it is, has brought me solace and understanding.  I can’t wait to see what wonderful stories of healing and love find their way onto the pages of my books from now on.

Joan Johnston

Joan Johnston is the top ten New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of 56 novels and novellas with more than 15 million copies of her books in print.  Watch for the reprint of Outlaw’s Bride in mid-October and the second book in her King’s Brat series, Shameless, in stores December 29.  You can reach Joan through her website, www.joanjohnston.com or Facebook at www.facebook.com/joanjohnstonauthor.

ONE OF THESE THINGS JUST DOESN’T BELONG HERE…

My ruminations today are on the delicate balance between presenting our readers with something they want to read vs. challenging them to read something that is uncomfortable and even Clasicsunpleasant but that might stick with them a little longer. It starts with the photo I've included with this post. While browsing blogs and online news articles about books and literature I came across the ad you see at right, and it struck me as blasphemy that Fifty Shades of Grey should be listed among such classics as Catcher in The Rye, of all things. It is outrageous that a book that, by all accounts, is barely more than poorly written Internet porn should find itself on a shelf, albeit an imaginary online shelf, with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now, being an expert on web design and development I know ads such as these are rarely put together by humans any more. These days there are algorithms smart enough to detect the topic of the article or blog being read and assemble ads automatically that are aimed to draw the attention of a reader with similar interests. It is more likely that this ad was put together by what is called an ad-bot (short for advertisement robot) based on the content of the article I was already reading than by a human being. He doesn't know any better, all he knows is the criteria around which his algorithm was written. Which made me wonder what that criteria might be, that would list a universally panned piece of populist tripe amongst such literary gems. Artificial intelligence is still decades away from being able to program value judgments into computers, so it had to be some mathematically quantifiable metrics on which the ad-bot made the choice to include those particular books in this particular ad.

This got me asking what these books had in common. Emotionally I wanted to reject the notion the Shades could have anything in common with the other three. But I looked at them objectively. Since the article I was reading made reference to Atlas Shrugged, it made sense that it was this book which seeded the initial algorithm, which them searched for other books in common with Shrugged. For one thing, all four books are listed on most retail book sites as General Fiction. I would've though Shades would be Romance, but I looked and before Erotica it is listed on most sites as General. Next, each of these books had a profound impact on our culture when released. Again, a bot cannot make a value distinction as to whether that impact was good or bad, only that there was indeed a measurable sea change as a result of the release of each of these novels. For better or worse, each book was destined to go down in history as a classic, if by no other definition than that it impacted society in some significant way.

This got me to thinking about the books I've read that I enjoyed, and those I did not. Oddly enough, I found that there was a much greater number than I wanted to admit that I found uncomfortable or unpleasant to read but that stuck with me, that I could not shake. These were not necessarily badly written books, in fact most were quite well written, but books that forced me to confront things I usually avoid, or made me see things in ways that made me uncomfortable, or even changed my outlook on life against my will. Books like, for example, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, a very dark look at attraction and rejection that includes the most detailed POV description of a suicide I ever read; or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in which a young man's love of Beethoven is stripped away from him as a casualty of an experimental behavioral modification procedure (read torture); or Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs which I'm still not entirely sure I understood but that contained some of the most disturbing images I've ever read.

What surprises me is, arguably, these books that I profess to dislike have impacted my life to a greater degree than any book I read that I liked. I say arguably because there are some neck and neck.

And that brought me to an assessment of my own writing. Even as a small boy I aspired to write books that people don't just enjoy, but that they cherish and want to keep in their libraries to read again and again. I still go back and read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, and Dune. And you can have my original hardcover copies of the Harry Potter series when you pry them from my cold dead fingers!

But I ask myself, is it better, for my own immortality, to have written a series of dearly beloved books, or to have instead left a legacy of disturbing, uncomfortable, haunt-you-in-your-sleep books that nevertheless impact people in a significant and long enduring way? I waffle on this occasionally. I still have no answer, except that in the end I write whatever I write the best way that I know how, leaving it all on the court, so to speak, and let others decide where my legacy falls. If you, dear reader, have an opinion on the matter, I'd love to read it in comments, below.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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WAR IN FICTION

By Kevin Paul Tracy

I've spent the past three posts discussing elements of politics in fiction, somewhat focused on world-building, which is often considered an activity of the speculative fiction writer, but I submit is also a job for any crafter of mysteries, adventures, thrillers, etc. who wants to provide a solid plot line that fulfills and satisfies readers. It is time to move on from political intrigue, or spies and terrorists, to full-scale war in fiction.

waterlooMost of us have written the occasional (or frequent) action scene - fist fights, exchanges of gunfire, and various forms of chase scenes. But few have the occasion to relate a full scale battlefield clash between two forces numbering in the hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands. To some the task may seem daunting, but if you keep in mind that, in the end, even chapters about massive combat are still ultimately about characters the readers have, hopefully by this point, come to care about, the task becomes manageable, if no less complex.

The challenge is to relate the larger events of the battle, the strategy and tactics, the turn of advantage, the ebb and flow of victory and defeat, while still keeping the very small, individual, human element integral to the narrative. I suggest planning for the battle comes at the very beginning of story craft - in the outline phase for the entire book. If you know this book is going to have a large-scale battle in it, you have some elbow room to plan ahead. Introduce characters whose diverse occupations and roles are going to be useful in giving the reader insight into the various aspects of the conflict later. In a medieval setting, for example, introduce the Kings and Generals early in the story, but also perhaps a squire, perhaps a message runner, an infantryman or two, and perhaps a conscientious princess or lowly midwife who might become a nurse to the injured or a beacon of leadership to refugees, etc. These do not have to be major characters, and they do not necessarily have to hold the roles at the very beginning of the book, as long as they are in place when the conflict starts so that we can turn to them from time to time during the battle for their very personal, human dramas amidst the larger backdrop of war.

Characters in place now, the battle starts. A battle is kind of like a tide at the beach, it ebbs one way, flows another, breaks against hard forces such as rocks, then tumbles past soft forces like shells or seaweed. Think of writing your battle sequence like a tide. Start with a bird's-eye view, giving us the larger context, the state of war as it begins, then rush down into the midst of it and focus on the actions and consequences of one of the characters established earlier. At an appropriate point, preferably upon a cliff-hanger, zoom your storytelling camera back out to the thousand foot view again, tell us how the tide of battle has shifted, who is advancing and who retreating. Then, dive back down again, choose another character whose very personal story gives us a context-filled experience that affects us and keeps us engaged.

And so it should continue - wide-shot, then close-up, wide-shot, then close-up, keeping us apprised of the progress of the larger war at hand, while simultaneously keeping us engaged on a deeper, much more character-driven level. If done well, the reader comes away from your book with a fulsome sense of satisfaction, that they were able to follow the impact of the greater events at hand because they were also given the very personal, individual micro-view of how those larger events affected individuals they cared about.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow to be release 4/15/2015; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

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I HATE MY BOOK!

By Kevin Paul Tracy

As you grow up you become more aware of a developing ability to hold multiple emotions at a time on any given subject, sometimes quite contradictory. For example, anyone who is married can attest to how it is possible to both loathe and love that same person at the same time. I'm a big James Carville fan even though I detest almost everything he stands for. I think Tom Cruise is a giant flake, but I'll go see any movie he's in because he's a very engaging actor.

So when I say, "I hate my book!" other writers understand this is a transient state - I don't in fact hate my book, but during the rewrite and editing process, I do! I loved it when I was writing it, and even during the first read-through and edit, I'm thinking, "Damn, this is pert'near genius!" But after the fourth and fifth read-through and edit, you wish you weren't the author if only so you could take the author by the throat and throttle him for putting out such drek!

Cap'n Crunch Cereal

It happens the same way with Cap'n Crunch cereal, to which I am, sadly, addicted. So I buy the big economy-sized box. Then, next Saturday morning I get up excited, pull up the last episode of Person of Interest on the DVR, pour myself a giant bowl of Crunch Berries, and sit down to a meal fit for a king.

Sidebar: Does anyone remember Cap'n Crunch's arch-nemesis, the pirate Cap'n LaFoote? He had a cereal of his own as well, a cinnamon something or other. No? Not surprising, it wasn't very good.

About two-thirds into my precious bowl of cereal the orange pieces are getting soggy and the berries are sticking to my teeth and I'm wishing I hadn't poured myself such a big bowl. I'm sick of Cap'n Crunch with Crunch Berries and don't care if I never see another bowl again. And yet, three or four weeks later, there I am, buying another box and getting all excited for the next Saturday morning!

You don't, in fact, hate your book as you enter the fifth read-through. You're just burned out on it. Compounded by the fact that with each read-through you keep finding more that needs fixing, and it's getting a little redundant and monotonous, especially if many edits are the same mistake repeated over and over again. You're frustrated and you're a little down on your own skill as a writer.

Well, let me clue you in on something I recently learned myself. There's nothing wrong with taking a break. I know, you want to get it done and over with and off to the printers. But when you're burned out like this, you make mistakes and miss things, which is why it seems like you keep finding the same errors over and again. Taking a break gives you a chance to recharge the batteries. Catch up on your own reading, attend a few critique group meetings, remind yourself what it was that inspired you to write to begin with.

Most critical, though, however long your break, get back to it. You'll find yourself much less stressed and frustrated, you'll find yourself making much fewer errors, and you might even fall in love with your book all over again!


Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, “Rogue Agenda,” a startling and engrossing gothic thriller “Bloodflow,” and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

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THE BACK NINE: SPRINTING FOR THE FINISH LINE OF YOUR NOVEL

By Kevin Paul Tracy

In golf, "the back nine" refers to the second half of an 18-hole golf game. It's often used as a metaphor for finishing up, or approaching the culmination of a goal. Other sports analogies would be: "the home stretch;" "first and goal;" or "sliding in to home." In writing I use it to refer to those last ten-to-20 thousand words of your manuscript. You've gotten past the swamp, that middle part of the novel that's not set-up, not climax and denouement, just complication. You're finally driving everything toward the final conflict and resolution.

Complex Fiction Plotting Chart

But sometimes, if you're like me, getting all of your characters on stage and where they need to be at just the right time for everything to come together can be a challenge. One of the greatest examples of this is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of The Rings. The first book in the trilogy, The Fellowship of The Ring (actually there are six books in the series, but they are most frequently sold as a trilogy, of which Fellowship consists of the first two) brings the major protagonists most of the way to the land of Mordor, the major goal of Frodo the Ringbearer. But Tolkien has three or four major battles to write about (Isengard, Helms Deep, The Black Gate, etc.) before the final destruction of the ring. So while Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Pippin and the like all criss-cross the country several times over, fighting and having adventures, Tolkien finds excuses to waylay Frodo and Sam, not once, but repeatedly, to keep them from Mount Doom, which is quite literally in sight most of the time, until he can get everyone else to the battle at The Black Gate to see what happens when (SPOILER ALERT) the ring finally gets destroyed. If I may critique what is arguably one of history's great works of fiction, the ways in which Frodo meets delay after delay always seemed rather shoe-horned in, to me.

Deliberate or not, I think we can do better. Some suggestions...

If you are having trouble with logistics, getting everyone where they need to be for the final conflict, ask yourself if the final conflict has to happen where you have set it. Is there another venue, already used in your story or not, where the confrontation can take place, that your more difficult characters can get to in the same time frame? Asking myself this once led me to the discovery of a much cooler place to present my final resolution than I'd originally planned, that now I routinely ask myself this question, even if I'm not having timing difficulties.

If you're approaching your maximum word-count, but you still have a lot to fit in, look at ways to time-jump. For example, is it necessary to describe the heist team planning the rescue of a team member from police custody while driving to the courthouse? Or is it sufficient to simply say, "On the drive to the courthouse, the team put together a hasty and daring plan for rescuing Mr. Yellow from the cops." Then you can just let the plan unfold as it happens, which is often much more effective than laying it out for the reader before-hand.

The absolute worst is coming toward the end of your manuscript, only to become suddenly aware of a glaring flaw in your plot, something someone is bound to notice and pan you for in their online review of your book. I've seen writers try to plug this plot hole by suddenly cramming in at the end of their book some spontaneous and transparently make-shift explanation that rarely fools anyone. No, in such a case there is rarely anything you can do but go back and rewrite and fix it the right way. I recently encountered such a flaw that required me to go back to the half-way point of my book and rework everything drastically from that point on. It was a pain, but there is no question the novel is much stronger for it.

At any rate, whatever logistical or timing challenges you encounter as you're "rounding turn number four" toward the completion of your manuscript, keep in mind, you're almost done! That should be a grand motivator. Stay agile and be flexible and find creative ways around bottlenecks and log-jams. Often your characters are where they are in the book for a reason, inconvenient as it may be, and sometimes it is incumbent upon you to work around that and still bring in a strong, satisfying conclusion to your story.>/p>


Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, “Rogue Agenda,” a startling and engrossing gothic thriller “Bloodflow," and don't miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog