Monday, January 31, 2011

Story Notes for "When Good Stories Go Bad"

Yesterday's story "When Good Stories Go Bad" was based on a Korean folktale I had heard a long time ago. That story immediately struck me with a strong resonance on many levels.

As a writer, of course, I giggled at the idea of uncooperative stories. Yes, I knew, they DO go bad if you don't treat them right. I had written other stories on that theme, including one with a poor writer who lived in a garret, whose books got in an argument as to whose fault it was.

But the larger thing that struck a chord was the concept of storytelling. In the version of the tale I'd heard, there wasn't a storyteller as a character. It was just about a boy who had collected stories in a bag -- it didn't really say much about those he got the stories from. But I felt those people were implied.

There's a tradition of oral storytelling in my family which goes back at least to my great grandmother, a woman we all referred to as "Great." I knew, when I wanted to write this story, that I wanted to set it in the early days of Michigan. I also wanted a motivation for the locking up and neglect of the stories -- because how could someone who loved stories neglect them?

(I always thought Little Jackie Paper was kind of a rat for abandoning Puff the Magic Dragon. I mean they said "a dragon lives forever but not so little boys..." but the implication was was that the kid didn't die, he grew up. I mean, maybe later he died, but there was nothing in the song about him showing up as a young man or a middle-aged man, or an old guy, or bringing his kids to see his most important childhood mentor. And if growing up makes you a rat, I didn't want to do it. So I didn't.)

The other element of the story that didn't work for me was the fact that the hero was an old servant. You just won't find a loyal old servant who risks his life and his job to save an unappreciative brat in pioneer Michigan. Especially one who also won't actually say why he's being such a troublemaker. A mother or sibling might be that loyal, but only an animal can't speak up. And if we're having anthropomorphized ideas, well, we can have smart animals.

The other thing I did like about the servant and the animals, was the anonymous nature of their actions. And with the animals I had a kind of autonomous collective/Congregationalist/volunteer fireman thing going. It was, after all, no skin off their noses if the girl got killed, but they knew about it, so it was up to them to fix it.

This is why I like folk and fairy tales. They have meaning, and that meaning shifts and develops from culture to culture, generation to generation, or even or person to person. This is why I feel stories are a living thing. (And why I do not like the DMCA or other "lock downs" on intellectual property. IMHO, copyright law has become downright excessive; greed rules, and orphaned stories -- stories upon which major parts of our culture are founded -- are neglected, sicken and die.)

Anyway, writing progress update: my progress has been slow, because I have been revamping how I'm going to handle the next sequence, and I've been pulling things apart and putting them together in new ways in the work-in-progress.

I have made some minor changes in my publishing schedule for this year. I realize that there are a few other things that I really will need to pause and get done, so instead of publishing twelve new ebooks this year (one a month) I'm only going to do eleven. I will commit April to updating websites and blurbs and other things I have been neglecting. I'll also get ahead on more work on future covers and blurbs and things.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

When Good Stories Go Bad - a fairytale for writers (and readers)

This story was inspired by a Korean folktale I'd heard a long time ago. It has special meaning for writers -- stories do take on a life of their own sometimes, and by golly if you don't take care of them, they really can go bad on you....

* * *
When Good Stories Go Bad
by Camille LaGuire

ONCE UPON a time in the big woods by the lakes lived a girl who loved stories. She loved them so much that she began to collect and hoard them in a little book—a diary with a lock. She crammed that book full of stories, from front to back, and still she collected more.

She listened to the tales of the lumberjacks when they came to dinner in camp, and the tales of fishermen who brought in bushels of fish for the Friday fish-fry. She got stories from the ladies who baked the bread and mixed the flap jacks and fried the bacon, and to the men who sat around the market where the farmers sold produce.

But it was her grandmother who told the best stories, and she gave them out freely. She sat, summer and winter, by the fire with the dogs at her feet and the cats in her lap, and she told stories to everyone who came by. Through her words those stories blossomed, as if they had a life of their own. The little girl sat on the floor with the dogs and cats every night, and scribbled these stories down. When her book was full, she wrote in the margins, and when those were full she had to write between the lines of stories that were already there. You couldn’t even read them, they were so crowded in there. But the little girl didn’t notice, because she was so busy collecting more stories, that she never read them, or let anybody else read them.

But then the day came when her old grandmother died, and it broke the little girl’s heart. After that, she couldn’t bear to hear any more stories, and so she closed the book and locked it. She set it on a shelf in the kitchen and went off to cry.

And she forgot about that book.

Eventually her broken heart healed up. She grew, and she played with the dogs and the cats, and took care of farm animals, but she never did go back and look at that book again. If she had, she’d have noticed the book had begun to rot.

The stories inside, all crowded in together, forgotten and neglected, grew sour. More sour than raw eggs in the sun. And with the rot, they grew resentful. They were trapped in the book without air or light or an audience. So they just stayed and went bad.

The girl grew up, as I said, and one day she found a beau she loved, and they planned to get married. The night before her wedding, her mother was in a tizzy, preparing for the big supper they would have the next day. She shoved a box aside to get at the matches, and didn’t even notice when she knocked the book off the shelf. It fell to the floor behind the wood box, which was next to the stove. The binding cracked just a little bit, but not much.

That night, after everyone had gone to bed, and the dogs and cats had been put out in the yard, one of the older cats decided it was too cold to be outside, so he slipped back into the kitchen through a loose window, and settled in to sleep behind the stove.

He didn’t sleep very well. For one thing, he smelled something rotten, and for another, he kept hearing voices. After a little bit, he got up and followed his whiskers over to the book, and there he could hear the stories talking to one another inside.

“I’m telling you the binding is loose!” said one. “We can get out of here.”

“I don’t care any more,” said another story. This one sounded grouchy.

“I do,” said the first. “I want to get out and I want to get revenge on that girl that locked us in here.”

“And how would you manage that?” said the grouchy one.

“I’ll tell you. In all this time, I’ve become so rotten, I’m like a disease. I'll get into her milk in the morning, and when she drinks me, she’ll get sick and die.”

“That won’t work,” said the grouchy one. “She’ll be so excited about her wedding that she won’t drink anything.”

“Well, then,” said another story. “If that doesn’t work, I’m so full of rot, I’ll get into the mounting block at the church, and when she gets out of the carriage, I’ll crumble away, and she’ll break her neck.”

“That won’t work either,” said the grouchy one. “What if somebody catches her before she falls?”

“Then what would you do?”

There was a pause, and finally the grouchy one spoke again, and its voice sounded so scary the cat’s fur stood on end.

“I hate it so much in here, my soul has turned to pure poison. I’ll become a rattle snake and I’ll wait in her wedding bed, and I’ll bite both her and her husband, and they’ll die.”

The cat sunk low on its belly and listened for a while longer as the three rotten stories agreed to each try their murderous plan. Then he backed silently away as only a cat can do, and ran back outside and told the dogs about it, and together they went and told the horses and cows.


The next morning as the girl’s mother stoked up the fire and started working on morning breakfast, she was surprised to find every cat in the family sitting in the kitchen. She was even more surprised when none of the cats got under foot or begged for anything. They just sat and watched until the girl came in, and poured herself a cup of milk. Then all of a sudden every cat in the place decided to have a cat fight. It was a royal battle with hissing and screeching and yowling. They managed to not only knock the cup out of the girl’s hand, but to knock over the pitcher and the milk bucket too.

The girl and her mother yelled and chased the cats out of the house with brooms. They were so busy and agitated, that they didn’t notice that not one of the cats had paused to lap up any of the milk that had spilled.

“It’s all right,” said the girl. “I’m too excited to eat or drink anything.”

She went to get dressed, and her mother went along to help, as others in the family volunteered to clean up.

Soon she was dressed beautifully, and her father helped her up into the wagon, and then her mother too. The wagon was decked with flowers, and so were the horses, and the horses pranced proudly and pulled with a will, as a good horse will.

But when they got to the church, the horses stopped short of the mounting block. The father yelled “giyap!” and urged them forward, but then they went too far and pulled past it. It didn’t seem right for a beautiful bride to climb down awkwardly, so he drove the wagon around again, and he struggled with reins and whip to bring the wagon along side the block, but the horses only fought him. Then finally one of the horses twisted this way and that, and managed to land a heavy kick on the mounting block.

The block crumbled away with rot.

So the father and the best man helped the bride down gracefully to the ground, and the wedding went on with no more problems.

And while the wedding went on, the two biggest dogs ran hard through the woods to get to the house where the girl and her groom were to live. Even a large dog has short legs, and it was a long way to go. The wedding was over long before the dogs reached their destination, but luckily there were many congratulations and good byes to be said. Finally the bride and groom climbed into their own wagon, and headed off to their new home and wedding bed.

As they drove along, cows wandered onto the road and blocked the way. The cows stood and stared and chewed their cud, and paid not a bit of attention to the shouts of the groom for them to get out of the way. In the end, both bride and groom climbed down and drove the cows off the road.

They were tired and grumpy by the time they climbed back up in the carriage and drove the rest of the way home. They had little patience with the two tired dogs waiting on their porch. They tried to send them home, but as soon as they got the door opened, the dogs ran inside.

The bride ran in after them, angry that all the animals had been crazy that day. She chased them to the bedroom, where one dog snatched up the corner of the blanket in his mouth, and yanked it off the bed. She started to grab the blanket away from the dog, but then she saw the rattlesnake in the bed, ready to strike at her hand.

Just then the other dog lept, and clamped her jaws down just behind the snake’s head, and broke its neck in a single snap.

Thus the girl and her new husband were saved, and the dogs each got a bit of wedding cake. The cats and horses and cows didn’t get much, because nobody knew what they’d done, but they had the satisfaction of knowing they had saved the day.

As for the stories, some died from the rot and were forgotten, but others were remembered, and were told again, and they grew clean and healthy. Stories are meant to be shared, and only on the telling, and on the hearing do they grow and become happy and strong. Never lock a story up. Always share it, and let it grow and blossom.

* * *

See the story behind the story in tomorrow's Story Notes on "When Good Stories Go Bad."

Friday, January 28, 2011

To Speed Up, Try Slowing Down

My problem right now is way too much left over birthday brownies (and okay, I should not have made the experimental peanut butter frosting with baker's chocolate drizzle...) and too little sleep. It also might be silent migraine day.

I was going to post an exercising in finding your own definition of quality -- by my head is buzzing a bit, and so I'm going to talk about something else.

I'm thinking a lot these days about being in a hurry. It's a problem. Yes, as writers we need to GET THINGS DONE. We need to apply seat to chair and get to work. We need to take care of business and market and promote, and not lose a minute. At the same time, we've got to be careful of being in too much of a hurry. That's something that I think is tripping up a lot of indie authors right now. Everything is moving so fast, and there's so much to do and all this excitement.

One of my favorite business books is called Cut To the Chase and it's all about how to skip past the garbage and speed up and be more productive. There are 101 little 2-3 page tips/lessons in it, and one really important one is this:

To speed up... slow down.

The author, Stuart R. Levine, tells the story of a manufacturing plant that makes reeds for musical instruments. In their process there was a step for cutting the reeds, and another for smoothing them. What they found was that when they sped up the cutting process, the smoothing process took a extra time. But when they slowed down the cutting process, the cut could be so precise and smooth that they could skip the smoothing process altogether.

Or, to use an old metaphor: one woman makes a perfect baby in nine months, but nine women can't make one at all in one month. Or even two. You can't rush some things.

Another story told to me by Kate Wilhelm. She had a student who was a promising young writer with very good ideas. So good, in fact, that he was able to do the impossible -- as a first time newbie writer, he sold a book he had not written, based on a synopsis and sample chapter.

Great! He had an advance to fund his writing! Except that it was his first book, and he had to write it on a schedule, which turned out to be a little tight. Not that the book suffered. It was great, and the editor loved it, and even though he was barely finished with it, the publishing company offered him another contract for the next book. Phew! Money! That was great....

Except that he barely had time to finish the first book before he was already behind on the next. And soon he found himself on a treadmill -- because he was always running out of money, he was never in a position to stall or bargain. He always had to accept that contract offer NOW, and he accepted less than stellar contracts. And eventually his writing suffered.

He finally had to quit his successful career and go live in his Mom's basement for a year and write a whole book on spec -- no contract -- which is what he should have done in the first place. Once he had the book in hand, he was in a much better position to bargain, and he was no longer behind the eightball with every single thing he did.

Fourth story: Colonel Alois Podhajski was director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna (you know, the one with the Lipizzaner stallions?) from 1939 to 1960-something. He wrote a wonderful book on training horses. He advised that you don't put an advanced rider on a young horse, for fear he would get bored and try to push the horse too fast to doing more interesting things. He cited the case of a talented young stallion that they found could physically handle the more advanced moves, and they trained him in the airs above the ground while he was still too young... and the horse used it against them. When he didn't want to do something, he'd rise into the levade and just squat there, and they couldn't do get him to do anything. A talented horse wasted by hurry.

There is a kind of hurrying that we do as writers, though, that is less obvious than teaching a young horse old tricks or signing a contract you aren't ready for.


When you think too much, it can feel like you're not hurrying at all. (Because, after all, you're not getting things done.) But consider this: when you've got a lot on your plate, you might start feeling overwhelmed -- or you might just feel excited about all the opportunities out there -- and your brain starts to race with thoughts on how to deal with it. And when you start thinking about it more and more, you start doing things like, oh, counting your chickens before they hatch (which I suppose could be a fifth story for this post), and pretty soon you've at least mentally signed a contact with yourself.

And then you're suddenly in a hurry. Your over-thinking has led you down the garden path of pricing and marketing and networking and writing blogs and websites and advertising and you're doing them too fast and too soon, and the more success you have the faster you try to do it. It can be like riding a speeding train which you don't fully control, and you may end up someplace you don't want to be.

To be an overnight success may not be so good for you. So maybe a little less hurry. Give yourself time to learn and observe, and don't over think. Let things unfold while you get ready.

Me? I'm correcting my course on my writing goals again. Oh, not the short term. I think I've got the right things lined up for the next few months.

But I was getting clever in thinking about my publishing schedule. I have a lot of partly finished Mick and Casey novellas and novelettes. These would be ideal for my "publish something once a month" goal. But I started to over-think it. I started to think, "Oh, but if I publish them all at once, it will be a long time before I get to the next Mick and Casey story after that. I want to keep my readers interested, so I should dole them out slowly and write other things...."

I was also thinking that I want to hold off on publishing The Man Who Did Too Much until I had the second book lined up -- because I know it's a slow story to write.

And I finally smacked myself on the head and said, "Why are you doing this? If you write all the Mick and Casey stories you have now, then there will be a bunch of fun Mick and Casey stories out there for the readers to enjoy sooner. Why dole them out slowly even if there is a gap in the series later on?"

As for Man Who and others, I've got WAY too many books to write to waste mental energy on what gets published a year from now. Nothing I write is going to have a good follow up until after I've cleared my plate and can write a good follow up. So get started and write whatever comes out now. Get it out there and out of the way.

I don't think my body of work will actually have a mature shape until sometime in 2012 at least. My mix of genres is not going to make sense until then. So why pretend otherwise. Just get through the pile and build the thing, THEN worry about shaping it.

Sophistication Ain't Everything

It seems that people are seriously not interested in rubrics, so I'm going to shelve that for now.

I wanted to write it though, because I see a lot of screaming about quality going on in writer forums these days. With self-publishing being so easy now, and so many writers having success at it, yes, it's true, there will be a flood of awful awful awful writing. That is undeniable.

And while some indie writers are in denial about that, most newbies are worried about it. Without the stamp of approval of a publisher, how does the writer know if he or she is ready to publish? (I mean, forget the audience trying to find a good book among the dreck, how does the writer know?) So I wanted to start writing tips toward learning and improving on your own.

But maybe that was the wrong place to start. Maybe the indies aren't the only ones who need a little education. Maybe first we need to take on the bugaboo of what quality standards are.

Because they're a-changin'.

Standards of quality always change. That's not new. However, we're in a spot where there are going to be some big changes. And some of our deeply held ideas of what constitutes "quality" are about to take a real lickin.'

Don't get me wrong... Quality matters. But it's going to be a whole different thing when there isn't a gate keeper. This may surprise a lot of teenagers and traditional publishing folk but:

Sophistication isn't the end-all be-all of the universe.

I remember when the first Harry Potter book came out. Pretty much all my writing friends -- who at that time were all children's fantasy writers and fans -- were unimpressed. There was a lot of tsking and sighing and discussion over what a naive and unsophisticated book it was, and how it couldn't hold a candle to (fill in the name of your favorite under appreciated but established writer of children's fantasy).

By the time the third book was out, though, everybody had got over it, and they loved it and didn't even remember their earlier reaction.

A little time later, one of my writer friends who mentored young writers on an online critique group, blew her top over a foolish young newbie who insisted on putting random and unexplained apple tree in the middle of desert -- and then arguing about it. The newbie insisted that with fantasy, she could do anything she wanted. Nobody had a right to criticize her for it. Now, this newbie hadn't just done that. She was the sort to fiercely defend everything. She undoubtedly should have listened to the experienced writer.


When I heard the second story, I couldn't help but remember the the Harry Potter thing. AND, then the experienced writer went on to complain about how there was a terrible plague of incongruous apple trees in all the newbie manuscripts....

I couldn't help but think, "Hmmmm, these young writers may not be good writers, but they are passionate members of our audience. Maybe they're writing that because they really want to see that in the books they read. Maybe it's a sign we sophisticated folk have gone overboard in restricting incongruous apple trees."

I made the mistake of suggesting that aloud, and I think I might have caused some strokes among my writing friends. I may have even made some enemies. That was the first time I realized just how fiercely attached my fellow writers were to sophistication. It was like I'd attacked mother and apple pie.

Now, I'm not saying these people were really snobs or even foolish. But I do think they were conditioned to think inside a box. And at that time, the box was necessary. You had to think inside it to be published, and unfortunately in the thirty odd years I've been writing, I've watched the box get smaller and smaller.

Psychologically it's related to the process of growing up:

A little kid loves a teddy bear and takes it to school, where he is informed by the other kids that that's baby stuff. So he hides it, and takes up the more sophisticated toy around the other kids. A girl likes sweet romantic stuff, and hears here friends make fun of that kind of thing, while swooning over sexy rockstars or vampires, so she converts her fantasy to something darker, and hides what she really likes. Somebody makes fun of sparkly vampires and a college kid converts to loving 19th century Russian literature.

And in all of these cases, we actually like the sophisticated thing too. And while we're young, we think it's a part of growing up to give up what you loved earlier. Eventually, though, we get to the point where we can admit that the Muppets are actually pretty cool. And a grown up CAN own a teddy bear and even display it publicly.

And in a natural world, that same thing happens to our sophistication in writing and publishing. The problem came over the past thirty years or so that the submission process got harder and harder.

I remember when I started, editors would tell me that just knowing proper manuscript form, and being able to spell, would put a person ahead of half to two-thirds of the pack. In other words, it was a major mark of sophistication. It wasn't exactly a secret handshake, but it was close. A well presented manuscript said you knew something.

But that changed, gradually but not all that slowly, as workshops and writing books, and word of mouth made writers more sophisticated about format, and slush piles got deeper at the same time editorial budgets were cut back. As it got harder to get noticed, the writers began to work at more and more sophisticated ways to stand out.

And something happened to the writing as a result. And I don't think it was driven by the publishers. It was driven by the system itself.

If you have a thousand manuscripts, and only a short time to judge them, and the writers KNOW that.... You're going to end up with a whole culture of people bent on proving their sophistication and knowledge and savvy with every atom of their being.

It's like the way young actresses get plastic surgery to look like an exaggerated version of some fantasy. And pretty soon the producers are insisting on it, and the audience is used to it and starts to expect it. But it still leaves people starved for something else.

Yes, it's true, writers need to write better. Our stories deserve to the be the best they can be, and we need to stand out and really communicate to our audience.

Quality DOES matter.

But now that we don't need the nose job, breast implants and poofy lip injections to get hired, we're going to have to sort out just what real quality is.

I hate to say that pro writers are awfully attached to their sophistication-enhancement products -- because after all, a big part of the audience wants that -- but I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at how you don't have to prove you're sophisticated to be sophisticated. And how sometimes sophistication is really not necessary or even desired.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's My Party and I'll Play If I Want To

I know I promised you an exciting blog post on rubrics. But it just turned midnight, and that changed things. I will let The Beatles tell you why....

Yes, I'm going to a party party (which actually will involve a notepad and the w.i.p., but also three cats and bit of string).

See you when I'm older....

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's a Rubric?

So what is a rubric?

Originally rubric referred to red text in a hand-lettered Bible, which eventually evolved into ways of marking instructions for priests in the liturgy, etc. But what it means in modern parlance is a scoring sheet to help a teacher grade a test or project.

Lately, though, rubrics have become a teaching tool for the students themselves. Teachers give the students a set of standards or outcomes which the students can learn to guide themselves. It's an especially useful tool for learning a skill rather than just facts. After all, with skills, students have to practice all the time.

Writing, of course, is a skill. And writers need to learn how to analyze all writing, not just their own, to see what makes great writing great, and bad wring bad. A rubric is an ideal tool for this. It's kind of like a ruler that allows you to measure things that aren't normally measured.

The most common type of rubric in writing is a basic coverage or review sheet, used by first readers in publishing or entertainment, or by judges in a contest. This kind is not a learning tool so much as a way to standardize how you're judging something. And because there are always exceptions to every rule, they are designed to be flexible.

For instance, when I read screenplays, one of my clients gave me a form to fill out. It was pretty standard -- you fill out all the identifying info and a synopsis, and then you analyze the script for Plot, Characterization, Originality, Cinematic Quality, Writing Quality and Overall. She was different than many other clients in that she gave specific point values to each of those, and you'd add up the points and grade the script based on the total.

But she didn't define what should earn a score of 1 or 4 or 10 in each category. She wanted the readers to give her good scripts, not just those that fit the rubric, so she left us some wiggle room. Let's say you got a script which had really super original characters, even if they were a little simplistic. So do you give it a 10 for the Characters and a 10 for Originality? Or do you give it a 5 for Characters, and a 10 for Originality?

That's what we call a fudge factor. What if, in this script, the characters were practically cartoons, but they are so original that it just takes over the whole script and makes it great. It doesn't matter that there isn't much plot, etc., either. The originality keeps you reading all the way through, and you can just see what a great movie it will make. In that case, you let the originality points bleed into the other areas. The plot may not get a 10, but it will get at least an 8 for supporting the originality so well. The characters may get a full 10 because they really did the job, even if they were flat.

At the same time, another script may be very original, but the flat characters and silly plot ruin it. None of it works together. Then you may give the story full points for the originality, and the other elements may get ones, twos and threes. Because in the end, the other elements -- whether they are brilliant or not -- have to support the overall story, and if they don't, it's a fail.

This is the kind of rubric you might use as a reviewer as well. Notice how many reviewers, such as Red Adept, break up the reviews, and the point scores, into categories. They can use these categories to help structure the review, but because the categories are broad, they can set the standards that seem to suit the story.

And that's great when what you are doing is judging. When you're judging, you want to get it right. You don't want to just stick to rules.


A fudge factor is awful when you're trying to learn, and you don't need it because you aren't making a value judgment. When you learn, you don't want things all wishy-washy and hazy. You want to identify things and see exactly how they work. As I mentioned above, you want to measure -- as with a ruler.

And for that reason, a rubric can be made into a great game or exercise. Many "workbooks" for writers are really a kind of detailed rubric. A character sheet, for instance, gives you a list of items you need to know to make up a well rounded character.

I know. just when I'm getting to the fun part, I'm going to say...but that's for tomorrow's post.

Today's Dare Update:

922 words - to finish Chapter 5, in which Mick and Casey dodge some snake oil and make a bargain. Grand total of 11805 words.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Five Tips Toward Being a Good Book Reviewer

Today's post is for readers as well as writers. You could say it's especially for readers. I see a lot of fans get caught up in the excitement of independent publishing, and often they say: "I'd like to help my favorite authors, but I don't know how to write a good review. I'm just no good at it."

Anybody can be a good and helpful reviewer. Anybody.

A consumer review does not have to be as polished as a pro reivew -- and it can be a path to learning to write better as well. Some amateur reviewers have gone on to create successful and respected blogs. You just have to keep five things in mind:

1.) Remember that the reviewer is the reader's best friend, not the writer's. If you want to help writers, forget about writers! You are only as valuable as far as readers trust you. So don't write a review designed to pump a writer's sales. Write a review that will help a reader find a book he or she will love... and yes, your review should steer people who won't like the book away from it.

As a reviewer, your reptuation is gold. Guard it.

2.) Be yourself. You don't ahve to be the sophisticated academic critic who understands every element of literary craft and history. You don't have to impress the readers with how smart you are, and you don't have to write a masterpiece. You just have to be honest and thoughtful. If it's a consumer review, it can be short or long, or well-organized or random -- whatever you can manage. But that brings us to the next point:

3.) Give the audience a reference to judge. No two people are alike. They need to know what your tastes are, and whether they are the same as theirs. It's okay if your tastes are different -- as long as they have an idea of what that difference is, they can more easily judge for themselves. Another thing that can help them judge, is if you give them a well-known comparison. If it's more violent than Pulp Fiction or sadder than Old Yeller or as silly as a Warner Brothers Cartoon. That helps.

4.) Start by reviewing some well-known books. Your audience has probably read some of the same best sellers or classics in your favorite genre. If you review those books first, you will do two things. You will gain some experience in writing a reviews, AND you will provide another reference for the audience. They can see how you reacted to that famous book -- or a famous movie or tv show -- and they can gauge how they would react by that.

5.) Review Books You Don't Like So Much. This is one of the most important things you can do to gain the trust of your readers. It's so important, I capitalized it like a title. It's natural to only reivew books you really loved or really hated. But in this internet era, filled with fakers and cheats, people are very suspicoius of five-star reviews. Sometimes they just ignore them, but many people will click on the reviewer's name to see what else they've reviewed. If all the reviews are five-stars, they figure it's somebody with low standards and they don't read further.

The good thing is that you don't have to put a lot of effort into those reviews of books you don't love. You're not excited about the book? A short review shows that. You also don't have to be mean. As long as you are honest, and give the readers a reference or context, it can be a short summary review. Three or four sentences -- mention what got your interest in the book, what didn't live up to expectations (even if it was just kinda dull or slow), and also give them an idea of who you think might like it better or hate it worse.

Of course, if you want to be a book blogger, you will have to be more thoughtful and organized about your writing, and you should read as widely as you can in your favorite genres. (It is good to specialize and have a strong point of view. Readers appreciate that.) One way to start is to review on retail sites such as Amazon to gain experience. Another place is Goodreads or Shelfari.

A reviewer who is known and trusted by readers is gold to a writer. We bless those of you who do it, and I hope this was not only helpful, but also will get you to get out there and write some reviews.

And while we're on the subject of judging:

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about Rubrics. I had a simple one in Saturday's exercise on reading slush. But this week I'm going to talk more about what they are and how you can use them to improve your writing or judge other people's writing. And I'll tell you a little on how to develop your own.

In the meantime, on the writing front....

It seemed like a terribly productive day, but somehow I never even opened the document on the work-in-progress. Still, I don't think I wasted much time. I was doing research, development work, and ... catching up with old writing friends and critique partners. Bad me, but not very bad me.

Monday, January 24, 2011

About Yesterday's Story - Showing and Telling

You've all heard the rule of writing "Show, don't tell," I'm sure. It's a very basic and standard bit of advice. The point is that you dramatize a story. Don't just summarize or explain. Explanations are boring.

However you don't always write that way. Yesterday's story, "The Bandit Knew" (read it if you want to avoid spoilers -- it's short) started out as a very specific kind of story that is often used in flash fiction and literary fiction. It's the pure irony story. Such story may have no action or drama at all. It's like a tableaux - a still three-dimentional picture that the narrator studies and finally reveals something that changes your image of it.

Nothing happens, nothing changes, except your perceptions.

So the original story was structured on a long description of what the bandit knew, and then a short twist of what he didn't know. (I.e. that she had a fight with her boyfriend and had exchanged the ring for a gun.) We never met the woman, we never saw the confrontation, there was no dialog.

In some ways, I think that was a stronger story. However, it was too short for the market I was trying to break into. Plus that market wanted more conventional story-telling and women characters.

So I decided to try turning it into a scene. I considered going darker, with the woman out to kill the boyfriend and thus raising the threat level on the bandit all the more. Flash stories are suited for that dark, Hitchcockian twist -- but the market wasn't. The market was into good and clever, like kids stories for adults.

And in thinking about how to make it kinder and gentler, I realized I had the opportunity for a double-twist. Which was good because a longer story needs a little more movement.

Now, the thing about twists is that they work best when they are psychological, and ironic. I had good irony in the first twist -- the bandit knew everything he needed to know except the one most critical fact that could get him killed. That is ironic, but also psychological in that he is over-confident and then is shown to have a blind spot.

The second twist, though takes the irony out of the first. He's not wrong. He didn't overlook anything. That's part of why it makes the story weaker. But it still has a strong resonance because both twists are now psychological. He's a bully who preys on the weak, she turns out to be not so weak, but really she is weak, but strong in a different way.

I could make this story stronger by choosing between irony and psychology and writing for one or the other, but it's hard to do both at the same time. The one strength of doing both is that the irony of the first part misleads the readers so they don't expect the last twist. (The market I changed this for, btw, rejected the story without comment.)

I still haven't decided what to do with it, but for some reason I really like this hobbled little story. I'll probably keep thinking on it.

In the meantime:

On Day 6 of the current dare, I wrote 1458 words. Part new, part old. I have notes on multiple versions of things that go on in this chapter, but I'm just going to make it flow and polish in new stuff or write from scratch as necessary.

The other thing I did today, and perhaps the more important thing, is that I finally have a really great idea of the first story for The Serial. It's got...oomph! And fun. And an uncooperative hero - the very best kind.

I'm calling the story "The Case of the Misplaced Hero." I've decided to go with "Case of" as the title patterns, even though a lot of them will be adventures and not exactly mysteries. I want it to feel like a casebook.

Anyway, this week I will be continuing to post on judging fiction. Tomorrow I'll post about how to be a good book reviewer -- whether you know anything about writing reviews or not.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Bandit Knew - a flash Crime Thriller Story

This week for Sample Sunday, I offer a previously unpublished and unseen flash suspense story.

This is a flawed story -- but I think the flaws are interesting. I will be talking about how and why I wrote it the way I did tomorrow.

* * * * * * * *
by Camille LaGuire

THE BANDIT knew everything he needed to know.

He knew all about the diamond engagement ring--how the rock was big enough to land the Mayflower on, and how it was surrounded by little ruby chips, and was set in platinum. He knew how much the woman's boyfriend had paid for it, and how much he could get for it from his fence. He knew which finger she wore it on, and how she was so thrilled about the marriage that she wore it all the time, even to the grocery store.

He knew about the rich and flashy boyfriend, of course. The man was a talker, a bragger. That was how the bandit had found out about the ring in the first place. He knew the boyfriend was out of town, at a conference that night, so the woman would be alone. And he knew she was the confident sort who would go out alone if the boyfriend wasn't there. The bandit liked robbing that kind, because they took chances, but they also kept their heads. He didn't have to worry about a panic if he made it reasonable for her to cooperate. He'd flash the knife, she'd see she was trapped, he'd make it clear he was only after the ring, and she'd give it to him.

He knew he had to rob her to get it, because she lived in an exclusive town home with a good security system, so burglary was no good. He also knew what kind of car she drove and where she parked it, and that she would have to come around that corner by the dumpster to get to her door. He knew how scary that spot could be if a shadow jumped out with a knife, and he knew just where to conceal himself.

He had watched for three nights, and he knew the sound of her car as she pulled into her spot. He recognized her footsteps as she walked, alone, toward the corner. He knew just how she would look down for her keys as she came around the corner, giving him an extra moment for surprise.

In two steps he was blocking her way back to the parking lot. She gasped and clutched her purse.

"Gimme the ring and I'm gone," he said, harshly.

"The ring," she said, and she clutched her purse. He thought for a minute she would stall, and pretend she didn't know what he meant.

"The engagement ring, lady," he said. "I know all about it, and I know you always keep it with you, so don't try to pawn anything else off on me."

Her eyes went wide. But then she shook her head and almost sneered at him.

"A lot you know," she declared. "If you know all about it, you'd know my fiance's been cheating on me. I caught him today and I returned that ring. To the store, for cash."

"Hey, cash is fine with me, lady. I know how much he spent on that ring, and you probably got more than I'd get from a fence. Hand over the cash."

She tossed her head with pride and reached into the purse.

"If you know so much," she said. "You'd know that I know my cheating boyfriend hangs out with low-lives like you, so I took that cash and bought a semi-automatic pistol on my way home." She pulled the gun from her purse.

The bandit realized he didn't know all he thought he did ... but he did know when to call it quits. He put the knife away and ran.
* * *
The woman took out her keys and unlocked her door with shaking hands. Even though the bandit had fled, she checked every room, and made sure every window was locked and the security system was on. Then she put the tea pot on and sat and rubbed her temples.

The phone rang, and the woman answered it. It was her boyfriend.

"You creep!" she said.

"I'm sorry I called late tonight," he said. "I had to work."

"A guy tried to rob me just now, you ... you rat!"

"Oh my god! Are you okay?"

"Sure, no thanks to you."

" is it my fault?"

"You and your bragging. He knew all about the ring. He knew that I had it and that I'd be wearing it. If I hadn't thought fast and lied, he'd have it now. It's a good thing I still had that toy gun in my purse."

* * * * * *
Stay tuned for tomorrow's exciting episode: Why I wrote "The Bandit Knew" the way I did....

In the meantime: you can read more of my (published and award nominated) mystery and suspense fiction in the short ebook collection: Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup! Five Mystery Stories. For 99 cents!

Available at the Amazon Kindle Store, Kindle UK, and in multiple formats at Smashwords. Also available at the B&N Nook Store, as well as the Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony and other e-retailers.

Changes In The Blog - A Schedule!

I want to make this blog better AND I want it to take up less of my creative time. What am I to do?

Well, for one thing: a schedule. And along with it a better organization of my time. I have decided that Saturdays are going to be thinking days. I'm not going to do a dare update on Saturday nights, since I post the Sample Sunday stories on that night anyway. (However, I will continue the word count updates at the top of every other post. This is probably bad for SEO, but it is the point of the blog.)

I generally post at or after midnight, so the post will go up the night before the day in question:

Sunday: post a story or excerpt for the Twitter "Sample Sunday." I really enjoy doing this, and I expect to enjoy it even more now that I've realized what I want to post on Sunday nights.

Monday: An "about the story" post giving more info about the previous day's story. This will be fun for all stories, but it will be especially fun, I think, if I post "not ready for prime time" stories and talk about what's right and wrong with them, and other "thoery" type post. (And it will be even more fun if you guys comment.)

Tuesday - Friday: My usual schtick -- commentary or theory. I will probably be doing even more "series" posting due to this, since I'll probably be planning some of this out on Saturdays.

Saturdays: An Assignment or Exercise based on some of the blather of the week.

Of course, I will still sometimes, when I'm all heated up, post an extra post now and then.

Tonight I'll be posting a flawed (but I think fun) flash fiction story, which I'll discuss the next day.

See ya in the funny papers!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Day 5 Update and An Exercise in Reading Slush

Today's Progress: 979 Words
Running Total: 9425 Words

9425 / 60000 words. 16% done!

Okay I need sleep. I did to the end of what I had notes for and I'm calling it quits for now. Tomorrow I can start dealing with the gaps.

Last week I gave you some exercises in finding your pace and setting your goals. I'm thinking I might make a regular feature of little assignments and exercises. I haven't decided if it will be weekly or every other week, but I think I'll do this on Fridays. You'll be reading a Friday night post on Saturday, most likely, and that will give you a chance to do something with it.

Today's exercise is in developing some judgement. Lee Goldberg did a guest post on Joe Konrath's blog the other day, and he's a guy who is very worried about the flood of awful writing out there in Indie-Land. So even though I think what other people choose to do is irrelevant to the rest of us, I thought I might do my part toward helping the world learn to judge writing a little bit better.

This exercise, BTW, could be just as much fun for non-writers as for writers, because it involves reading. Specifically, it involves panning for gold in the slush pile.

The Assignment:

You are the new intern for an overworked, but generous, editor. She has an enormous slush pile; it's just huge. There is simply not enough time to read them all, and they are all completely unsolicited. And you don't have time to read them all either. So she has decided that when you have a little time to spare, it's your job to pick ten of the manuscripts, and read a couple of pages. You don't have to read more than 2-3. And you have to pick ONE of them to put on her desk.

As I said, she's a generous person. She is willing to read dreck, but she can't get through more than a tenth of the pile and it's YOUR job to narrow it down to that ten percent.

So, since Lee says that 99.9 percent of the samples available at Smashwords is unreadably bad, we're going to use that as our slush pile. To make it random, we're going straight to the Smashwords home page and taking a sample from each of the ten most recently uploaded stories.


*If a single author has uploaded a bunch of files at once, you should only pick one and skip down to the next author.
*You may engage the "prude filter" (the link is at the bottom of the page) so you don't have to read erotica if you chose. You may skip things that seriously offend you, but not things that are just not to your taste.

And just to make things easier, the editor has given you a rubric to help you judge the work. If you were reading a whole story, she might give you something more formal where you assess characterization, plot, ending, setting, writing style, voice, market oomph. But since this is just an opening, she'll keep it simple. She is leaving it up to you to choose what to emphasize, and she'll even allow you to add some criteria of your own.


1. Does the story actually START in the sample?
Do you have a sense of who the story is about? What it's about? Where it takes place? What the beginning problem is? Does it ramble or seem pointless?

2. How is the writing style?
Is it full of typos and grammatical errors? Is it clear? Can you make out what the writer is trying to say? Is it "correct" but sloppy -- wordy, poor word choice, point of veiw problems, etc? Do you have a sense of "voice" or style? Does the style itself get a response out of you?

3. Does this sample make you want to read on?
Is the character appealing? Is the situation intersting? Is there a compelling problem or puzzle introduced? Do you just _like_ the darn thing? Is there a hook?


Reading just ten samples may depress you (or excite you if you get lucky). However, if you are a beginner, especially if you have no old pro to help you learn, this can be a wonderful thing to do every single week. I mean it. Do it for ten weeks, pick one sample out of ten and save it -- and then after ten weeks, pick the best of those. And go ahead and change the rubric to suit if you are learning something from a writing book or blog or magazine.

I can hear some old pros scoffing at this as a learning tool. They can't imagine you raising your standards without someone telling you how. But I can tell you from experience, that a thousand teachers can't equal the power of having to pick one out of ten time after time, and then picking the best of the best, and the best beyond that.

Practice makes perfect.

The other thing you will learn is that Lee Goldberg is at least partly right. There's a lot of awful writing out there. You as a writer can write better than that. You as a reader can _find_ better than that. You'll find yourself looking at the book covers and descriptions and see how they can often telegraph the problems of the book. (Or how badly they can decieve you about a book.)

AND when you get sick of the crappy stuff, change where you're getting your samples. Read the top rated books. Go to Amazon and download samples from the best seller lists in your genre. Start choosing one out of ten among the BEST books. (That's a lot harder, but it's also a lot more pleasant.)

If you don't have the resources to learn other people's standards, you can at least set your own. Become choosy.

Tomorrow evening I'll post another short story. Probably a quick and fun flash fiction.

Day 4 Update - Down and Dirty with Pulp Fiction

Today's Progress: 3233 Words
Running Total: 8446 Words - to complete Chapter 5

8446 / 60000 words. 14% done!

Aside from doing two chapters today (including one of my favorite scenes, in which Mick and Casey get the unwanted support of their colleagues) I also finally resolved an issue for The Serial which will make it much easier to write when I get around to it. And I had some good ideas for the George and Karla series.

I'm all fired up, but not doing as much work as I'd like. Part of it is because the New World Order of modern publishing has so many possibilities in it; it's over-stimulating.

It's like this cat I had. Bubba. He was a little Siamese chocolate point, but he was built like a bulldog. He loved to play, but if you got his toys moving back and forth really really fast, he'd start racing about madly and randomly, and then run straight out of the room. He was just so thrilled he couldn't stand it.

What I'm excited about most is that so many of us out in the indie publishing world seem to be thinking along the same lines. We've all noticed that the freedom of indie publishing has made writing fun again. But we're not used to being quite as free as all that. It's like we're all sitting here, jazzed about our new cat toy, but we can't quite believe it's really as cool as it seems.

I have heard writer after writer this past week use the words that I've been using for a while: we're in a new pulp fiction era. It's okay to write fast and fun things again. And not only can we write it... we can now read it! And hearing them say it (especially when they are all established pros) validates my thinking about it.

One thing I should add, for those who have a certain image of pulp fiction -- the pulps weren't just violent and lurid men's adventure. They also included romance and children's fiction, and 'true life' travel and coming-of-age stories and pretty much anything you could think of. The thing they held in common was that they were intense and distilled, like a great cartoonist's drawing, and the only rule was "thou shalt not bore the reader."

The other thing about pulp fiction is that the stories were usually middle length. Short stories were longer, novels were shorter, and there was every length in between. This allowed the stories to be easy to devour, AND also meaty enough to be satisfying. There was room for subplots and twists and turns.

My only problem is that as I sit down and start to do this I can hardly believe that this dream has come true. I can actually write what I want... and then I run in a little circle and race out of the room.

Tomorrow's a Day Job day, but I expect to move ahead with one more chapter of transcription... but then I'll have to start coming up with more new material. I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Day 3 Update - So Far So Good

Today's Progress: 1782 Words
Running Total: 5213 Words - to complete Chapter 3

5213 / 60000 words. 9% done!

I just saw The Magnificent Seven in a real theater last week. Vin, the character played by Steve McQueen, makes the following comment somewhere around mid-movie:

"Reminds me of that fellow back home that fell off a ten story building. As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say 'So far so far so good.'"

That more or less describes my feeling about the first week of the semester. I got through my long Wednesday without major disasters. So far so good. And that's how the dare is going too. Since I'm mostly transcribing old scribbles and notes, it has been easy. So far. (so good.)

Sometimes you've just got to close your eyes and keep going. (Or as my hero Toby Peters puts it... sometimes you just have to look reality in the face and deny it.)

But Thursday is my day off. I have to decide if I want to go see His Gal Friday in the theater or not. I think I had better write. Yes, I'd really like to see it on the big screen, but it isn't the kind of movie you HAVE to see on the big screen.

In the meantime, I have a guest post at T.L. Haddix' blog -- I believe it's scheduled for sometime Thursday. (If it's not there yet, check back!) I'll be talking about the process of adapting a screenplay to a novella for Harsh Climate. I mention Steve McQueen there too.

(And a reminder, I am currently having a Smashwords sale on Harsh Climate and The Enchanted Tree. They are FREE until midnight Thursday night. I'm having a bit of trouble coordinating the schedule, so they'll probably go on sale again, but I can't say when at the moment.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 2 Update - Plain and Fancy Speakin'

Today's Progress: 1800 Words.
Running Total: 3431 Words - to complete Chapter 2.

3431 / 60000 words. 6% done!

Today's progress was mostly a matter of transcribing old notes, which is good, because today is a long day at the Day Job, and tomorrow will be even more so.

Transcribing old work is a good way to get back into the rhythm of a story, and back to the voice of my narrator, Mick. In some ways it's an easy voice. Mick is a chatty kind of guy. Sure he can be a plain spoken westerner, but there's another side to the western "voice." A certain formality and respect for the twists and turns of a clever sentence and the beauty of words.

I really enjoyed watching the Coen brother's new version of True Grit, and one thing that really impressed me was how well they handled the formal language of period lit. The characters speak with a lyrical quality, sometimes earthy, sometimes clever, sometimes straight forward and sometimes speaking in loops.

While Mick doesn't speak with that formal awkwardness, he does have a playful way with words. And he talks a LOT. He goes for effect with repetitive patterns, and drawing comparisons and using parallels which are often unnecessary. But those loops of words are also a part of the point. Editing will always be a trick because I have to respect the voice. I've got to let him talk his way around a corner and back again sometimes.

At the same time, I have to tighten it. So far I've found the only way to do that is multiple passes. I've got to let the language settle in on me. I play around with a bit here, and leave the rest. And then the next time through I can see more places to tighten it up. You can't do it all in one go, the way you might non-fiction, or even with a more straight forward voice in regular fiction. You can't just slash away unnecessary verbiage.

In this case, each word IS carrying a weight, and that weight has to be shifted to other words and phrases. The editing process becomes like archaeology. Instead of digging, you scratch away with a feather to unearth the treasure.

Voice is one of my favorite things about writing. I like to discover a world through a character's point of view. And a detective, of course, has to be particularly observant of his world, and able to draw conclusions from it. (Perhaps that's why the other character I have trouble with is Karla. She too tends to think in loops, drawing conclusions and phrases out of the corners of every thought.)

Tomorrow is my longest day at work, but I have more "easy" transcribing to do and should be able to keep to schedule. On Thursday, I might jump ahead and start working on some new material.

A Free Book Experiment

I understand Barnes & Noble is having such a rush of sales that they have a hard time reporting the sales to their publishers. Since I publish to them through Smashwords, I get an even longer delay...

So I decided to start recording my rankings to see if I can get an indication of how much I'm selling, and I discovered something. Last October I made my mystery short story collection, Waiter There's a Clue In My Soup, free for a month. It didn't sell that many on Smashwords, but after a short lag, it started selling like hot cakes on B&N. And now that the price has gone back to 99 cents, the ranking has stayed high.

And sales on my other books appear to have increased. So......

I decided to see if I can recreate the experience. I have lowered the prices on both The Enchanted Tree and Harsh Climate to FREE on Smashwords for a short time. It will take a while for that to trickle through to Barnes and Noble's Nook store. We'll see what happens there.

NOTE: Sale Postponed! I just learned that Smashwords is taking a lot longer to prepare new files and it could take months to ship to B&N (which then takes months to get it up on the site) so I need to postpone the sale on Harsh Climate. I will leave the price at free until Thursday, Jan 20. At midnight EST I'll put it back to 1.99 until Smashwords finishes the process. THEN I'll announce a new sale.

The Enchanted Tree will remain on sale. Sorry for any confusion.

Day 1 Update - and What Would I Do Differently?

Today's Progress: 1631 Words (completed chapter 1)
Running Total: 1631 Words

1631 / 60000 words. 3% done!

In the meantime I'm thinking about how much publishing is in flux right now. Nobody knows what the right thing to do is any more. Joe Konrath is recommending the complete abandonment of traditional publishing. I know that's right for me. I already decided to do that months ago. But a number of new writers have popped up on various blogs and forums, and I don't know that the brave new world of indie publishing is right for them. Yet.

I've been pondering what I would do differently if I were starting out now. How would I prepare myself to work in this new climate?

If I were starting out from scratch, I'd have to take into consideration how very slooowwwwly traditional publishing works, and how very fast epublishing is -- and I would try to use both to my advantage.

When you start out, you need to have one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake. You need to write like mad but you also need some time to get your feet under you. To gain perspective. To get a network of friends and colleagues in place. Traditional publishing is great for that. It slows you down, and teaches you to submit a manuscript and forget about it while you work on something else.

Self-publishing gives you too much feedback too fast. You can see your stats and hits and get your Google alerts on your book. It lures you into spending all your time on marketing, and networking and checking your stats and advertising. And you need to NOT do that. At least not at first. You need to concentrate on writing.

The other thing is that I see the most angst coming from writers who have the first book in a series published, and they're struggling to get the second ready as fast as they can. The happiest writers I see are those who actually had several books written before they started to publish.

There may be something -- for some writers anyway -- to combining traditional with indie publishing.

First of all, you don't have to succumb to all the negatives of traditional publishing. You don't have to write to chase the market. If you write the first book in a series or trilogy, you can freely keep writing on that series, and not worry about what will happen if you don't sell the first. That was something that killed me and was the worst mistake of my life -- I listened to people who said you should hold off on writing a second book in a series until you have sold the first. Instead, you should write a bunch of first books to improve your marketing chances.

Since you can fall back on indie publishing, you never have to worry about such things any more. You can write what you want. Furthermore, because traditional publishing takes So Darned Long, you don't have to worry about making up your mind any time soon. Go ahead and submit. Gather rejection slips and advice. Learn your craft. And by the time you have a couple of books under your belt, you'll be ready to make that decision about your career.

And if your decision is to go for self-publishing, you will have more books at your fingertips, and you can actually start your publishing career with a bang.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Quick Update

No, I haven't got anything pithy and exciting to say today.

I read through most of the snippets and notes on Old Paint. I have a much stronger sense of the things I'd forgotten, and also opportunities to play with new twists. I had also forgotten about a number of fun ideas I'd already had -- I'm very much looking forward to this.

I also had some good ideas with the previous work-in-progress, The Man Who Did Too Much, and it's sequels. Oh, and then there were the ideas I had for The Serial. I wish I could write fast enough to note all this stuff down as I think of it. Of course, many thoughts come while I'm driving or falling asleep, which makes it harder.

(I also wish I could shake this cough. I think my allergies have settled in after the cold and I sensitive to EVERYTHING now.)

In any case, I will start in on the actual writing tomorrow. It shouldn't be too hard to catch up on word-counts at first, because I've got some good material already sketched out.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Harsh Climate - opening pages of a thriller

For Sample Sunday, I am offering up the opening pages of my new novella.

Harsh Climate is the story of a pair of teens who find themselves stranded on a desolate road in the middle of winter. When they seek shelter in an abandoned farm house, they find it's the lair or a gang of vicious kidnappers. But you know what? These two are up for it.

* * * * *

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Harsh Climate

IT HAD BEEN an unusually warm early fall, but the temperature had dropped rapidly that day, leaving the landscape of Overton blanketed with light snow. And now after the snow, with a clear dark sky, the temperature dropped further and the wind picked up. A crust of ice began to form on ponds and in ditches, and sidewalk puddles became a slick of black ice. The stars were like pinpricks of ice.

Clyde Watkins turned the battered Oldsmobile into the driveway on Windsor Street. He was seventeen and not dressed for the weather: no socks, worn sneakers, and just an extra sweatshirt for warmth. It was his own damn fault. He’d left his coat at a party somewhere, and he never did like socks.

He hesitated before getting out, but it wasn’t really the cold wind or snow. He looked with trepidation at the house. Even inside the car he thought he could hear yelling. Mr. Bleur, Vicki’s dad, was not happy. He was a state trooper and he scared the hell out of Clyde. But there was no point in delaying. Vicki wanted a rescue so he was there to provide it.

Clyde threw himself out of the car and ran to the house. Tiny ice crystals worked their way into his shoes, making his ankles ache. He ducked his head and jumped up on the porch and knocked.

Inside he could hear Vicki shouting.

“That’s what’s wrong with you!” she said. “You don’t care!”

“Oh, sure,” roared the voice of her father, so loud he must have been standing near the door. “Miss Teen-Queen I-don’t-care girl is telling me I don’t care.”

“I care! I care about everything,” screamed Vicki. “You don’t even know how to care any more. You’re just a cynical old fart!”

Clyde sighed. It was not going to get any better and he was cold. He knocked again, louder this time. The door jerked open and Mr. Bleur glared down at him.

“Oh, Christ, it’s Poughkeepsie,” he said, as if Clyde were just a package left on the step—a package Mr. Bleur was not much interested in receiving.

“Actually I’m from—” began Clyde, but he was interrupted by Vicki, who stood on the stairs behind her father.

“That’s Denver,” she said firmly. “And tell him I’ll be right there.”

“—I’m from Toledo,” continued Clyde, “and my name is—”

Mr. Bleur shut the door in his face as if Clyde wasn’t even there.

Clyde stood on the porch and considered whether this was worth it. He was about to strike out on the open road with the most interesting girl in school. Worth it. But there was no point in just standing there on the cold porch. Vicki needed a ride.

He tried the knob, and found the door was not locked. He pushed it open and stepped into the warmth of the house.

Mr. Bleur was glaring up the stairs after his daughter. He didn’t turn around to look at Clyde, but he knew he was there.

“She’s not going anywhere, Poughkeepsie, so you can just forget it,” he said.

“My name is—” began Clyde one more time, but then Mr. Bleur turned to glare at him. Man that guy had a tough glare. Clyde backed away a step.

“Are you her boyfriend now?”

“No?” said Clyde. They’d never dated, they were just friends more or less, so he assumed that was true. Mr. Bleur turned and shouted up the stairs.

“So is this your fag ballet partner?”

“Don’t be a homophobe!” shouted Vicki from somewhere upstairs.

“No, I’m not,” said Clyde. He supposed he shouldn’t be a homophobe either, but he didn’t want that misunderstood.

“So what are you doing here?” growled Mr. Bleur, but he didn’t wait for an answer. He slapped the air dismissively, with a force that could have knocked over a horse, and went into the next room.

Clyde stood alone in the entryway, and looked after Bleur.

“I... guess I don’t have any purpose here whatsoever,” he said. He stepped to the bottom of the stairs and called up. “Vicki?”

“I’ll be right there, Denver,” she called from somewhere out of sight.

“No she won’t!” roared her father from the next room.

“I’ll wait in the car,” said Clyde.

“It’ll be a long wait!” called Mr. Bleur.

Clyde went back to the car, figuring that Mr. Bleur was probably wrong.

It was so cold in the car already. One of the windows didn’t quite close and the wind seemed to sneak in, like one of those evil mists in a horror movie. He considered starting the car to let the heater run, but he wasn’t sure about the gas. If they were going all the way to Colorado then they were going to need gas.

At least he thought they were going to Colorado. Vicki had been calling him Denver ever since he agreed to drive, but she’d never actually said where she wanted to go. She was kind of obnoxious, really, but Clyde had this philosophy about people. If you let them get to you, you miss out on a lot of life. If you get offended all the time, you might not notice something really cool right there on the other side of the insult. Besides, life’s too short to deal with other people’s shit.

So he sat and shivered and considered whether he should start calling himself Denver, The Ride Guy. Everybody else was calling him Denver now at school.

Vicki came running around from the back of the house. She must have snuck out. She was hauling a large suitcase with her. She just made it to the car when her father threw open a window.

“Is that a suitcase? Where the heck are you going?”

Vicki threw the suitcase in the back seat.

“Go!” she yelled and she jumped into the passenger seat.

Clyde started the car. Of course it took a minute to turn over. Mr. Bleur disappeared from the window, and he knew it was only a minute before he’d come running out the door. But then the engine roared roughly to life, and Clyde hit the reverse so fast his tires squealed.

Vicki buckled her seatbelt. She may have been a rebel but she was a cop’s daughter. She settled back.

“This doesn’t make you my boyfriend.”

“I know,” said Clyde. “I’m doing this for the gas money.” He paused. “You have got the gas money, right?”

“Of course,” she said, and she patted her purse.

“Then westward ho.”

She paused, and he could tell she was looking at him. Why did he say something stupid like that?

“Thanks, Denver,” she said at last.

“My name Clyde,” he said. “And I’m from Toledo.”

“Denver’s a better name,” she said.

He glanced away from the slippery road to look at her. She was smiling a thin smile. Mona Lisa style. God, she was beautiful. Blond hair, green eyes, lithe and energetic. She was a dancer and sometimes her body just seem like a taut spring—even in her lumpy winter coat.

He took a breath and turned back to the road before he ran them into a ditch. Okay, Denver was better. He could be Denver.

* * * * *

If you'd like to read more of Harsh Climate, the ebook is currently for sale for $1.99 at Amazon's Kindle Store, and Kindle UK Store. The book is also available in various formats for most ebook readers or computers at Smashwords.

Coming soon to Apple's iBookstore, and other online stores like B&N's Nook, Sony, Kobo and Diesel, too.

There Is NO Reason to Keep Secrets From Yourself!

I'm sorry this post is late -- it should have been posted after midnight last night.

I mentioned that the current book, Old Paint: Dead or Alive, is something I have a lot of notes and scenes already written for. I assumed this would allow me to get off to a fast start. Alas, it is not so. These notes are a mess. I have four different versions of the same opening (and who knows how many of the other scenes). And lots of nice notes and ideas and such. I've got to read through it all.

But just now I must confess: I did something that no mystery writer should ever do. I was cagey about what the clues meant in my notes. Bad, BAD mystery writer. No biscuit! (Well, okay I had three biscuits, but no more!)

I have this one scene where a character does something subtly odd, and Mick notices it and puzzles about it. And he discusses it with Casey and they have all sorts of theories about it. But in my notes it just says "...and then they realize what it really means." Gaaaahhhhh! I don't remember what it really means!

So, to all you mystery writers out there: when you take notes, don't worry about spoiling the ending for yourself. You KNOW who did it. You know WHY they did it. You KNOW what all the red herrings are really up to. If someone ever combs through your private notes, it's their own dang fault if they spoil the ending of your novel for themselves.

A few years from now, you will probably remember the big stuff, like who did it and why. But trust me, you won't remember all the details of that great triple-twist of a subplot. You may remember the first and second twists, but you won't remember that last one, the kicker. The one that makes it all wonderfully twisty and worth it.

You never know what might force you to set a book aside. You never know how long you'll remember that bit about the splotch on the lawyer's sleeve.

In the meantime, I don't expect to be racking up the word count until I get this all in order. I hope to start on Monday, but that could be just a Dream. (That was a joke. It's MLK Day on Monday. Live your dreams.)

In the meantime, I'll be posting the first few pages of Harsh Climate for Sample Sunday in a few hours.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Productivity Tip #1 - Open the Document

I can't really consider what I did today on Old Paint as "progress."

I broke all the rules of getting things done. First, since I published the new novella last night, I was too wound up to go to bed on time, and I had to get up early, so I missed out on sleep. Okay, so that was my first mistake, but what are you going to do? Publishing a book, even a novella, is fun and exciting. (And it's problem fraught with issues, so your brain is wide awake and engaged when you do it.)

So then up early and to work. This is the week before the semester. Running around madly making sure the classrooms are ready. And this is the day of the union meeting.

Union meetings are not necessarily good things for a writer to attend. We are working without a contract at the moment. The administration is, um, well, let's just say they aren't used to working with a union. They're making some really stupid assumptions about the rank and file, and as a result they're getting the populace good and fired up all on their lonesome. Today the usual union firebrands were saying, "we're not ready for action yet but--" and they were being interrupted by the milquetoasts, who were screaming "STRIKE! NOW!" (If you're counting on the indifference of part-timers who make up 90 percent of your workforce, you should probably avoid doing things which utterly enrage them. Just sayin'....)

So I didn't get enough sleep, and I was really distracted with work, I was even MORE distracted after work, and let's face it, when you publish something new, it's really easy to spend the day checking your stats and status reports. (For instance the new book has got a lot of sample downloads today on Smashwords, but... pause to check ... as of this moment it's still not quite ready on Kindle. The book page is there, but the "buy" button isn't yet. Rats!)

Plus, you know, I need to replace the banners in my Kindleboards signature... at least I will when the buy button is there. And I should tweet about it. And update the webpage. And....

...What do you do when EVERYTHING is on your mind except writing?

You open the document.

Seriously. That's what you've got to do. Your mind is racing fast. You are thinking ahead. When you actually pause to think about the book, your mind will race right past what you need to do now, and you'll start thinking about stuff you can't do yet at all. And after a moment of paralysis, when you can't figure out how to get to what you're thinking about... your mind will say "squirrel!" and like an eager puppy, you'll go galumphing after some other hot topic again.

So you make this a mantra: "Open the document." Say it aloud right now. Don't worry if it startles the cat.

Open the document.

It doesn't matter how many lovely squirrels run under your nose, and how many times you go chasing after them. The first chance you get you remind yourself to .... OPEN THE DOCUMENT.

Of course, behind that simple command is a deeper reminder -- to take baby steps, especially when your attention span is short. So after you open the document, you look at the document. Hey, you need to correct that typo. (Squirrel! Chase chase chase... oh yeah... open the document. Right.) And that paragraph should be adjusted. (Squirrel! Chase! Open the document.) Okay, add one new word. Just one... (Squirrel! No, back to the document...) Add another word. A sentence maybe.

It's nearly impossible to fight the squirrel chasing all at once. You are just too distracted and you can't take it on. If you keep doing this one little thing - you just come back to the document and do something, anything, between squirrels - you will find the squirrels let up, and the little sessions become bigger ones.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Productivity: Dreaming About What You Really Want

"I would like to thank the Academy, and Steven Spielberg, and my mother, and Pulizer Prize nominating committee for the fact that you like me. You really really like me...."

Even though writers usually write for the sake of the story itself, we all pause to daydream a little about winning a major award, and being honored, and having lots and lots of money and respect, but daydreaming about winning an Oscar is not going to do much toward getting you one.

There are other kinds of daydreams, though, that can do you some real good. Money gurus sometimes set people to dreaming about winning the lottery, only it's usually a special kind of dream-game. Instead of dreaming about what you would do with a bazillion dollars, you dial it back a little and dream about what you really want, and how big of a prize would you need to achieve it? In that way the person starts thinking about the things they can control, and how to get there, even without winning the lottery.

I think it can be valuable for a writer to dream about the writer you want to become. Assume money and success. Assume that you will one day achieve freedom to do what you want. And assume one more thing... that you gain the skills and sureness and speed -- and time -- to write everything you want to write.

What do you want to be when you grow up as a writer? What kind of work is close to your heart? What do you want to have achieved? And most importantly for this exercise: if you had the super powers of a master writer, who had no other claims on your time, how much would you like to write each year?

A lot of writers don't think about this, but it is important. When you think about what you want to be, part of it is the many kinds of stories and such you want to get done. You may be a literary type writer, who wants to write one major book over two or three years. But you also may be a mystery writer who has several series in your head. You may have several different genres you'd like to write in.

So in your perfect writing life, how much can you achieve? Make sure you consider how much you WANT to write, not how much you think you can write. I mean, don't go too wild, like when I was a kid, sometimes I dream about having a thousand horses. Really, though, you could never get to know that many horses, and one is a handful. Don't get too greedy and think "I'll write a hundred novels a year!" Imagine them as individuals that need your attention.

So, for me, I have several mystery and adventure series. I have Mick and Casey, plus the work-in-progress with George and Karla. Both of those are the kind of series you might like to release a new book every year. But you could taper off after you'd explored the characters sufficiently - only write a new one when the idea is hot. I also have a few other series on the back burner, but they could potentially wait until I was taking a break from my main series.

But I also have some other types of stories I want to write. I like to keep my hand in with short fiction, and I love novellas. I have The Serial, which I expect to be a long running series. It will be made up of novellas, but I will probably write a book's worth of them every year.

So when I think through all I'd like to write, and how quickly I come up with new ideas, and how satisfying working on an idea is... I have to assume I would be happiest if I could be writing at least three books a year, or 240,000 publishable words.

If you were a literary writer, though, you might have different ambitions. You might want to write a 100,000 word novel in two or three years. Odds are that a literary writer would also want to write short fiction, so I think it would be reasonable to say you'd be at your happy, productive best if you could write 100,000 good words in year.

Today's assignment is to figure out what you would love to be able to do. Be flexible. Maybe come up with a couple of different scenarios. Then....

Do a little math and figure out how much you'd have to write in a week to achieve that. Make it easy on yourself and round down. You'll take some time off once in a while, right? Say you only put in a full work week 40 weeks out of a year. Divide your yearly total by that 40 (or 45 or 50), to come up with how many words in a productive week. That literary writer would need 2500 words in a week. I would need 6000 words in a week.

They need to be good words, though. But don't worry about that yet. (After all, you get better with practice.)

Now, here's the magic:

When you have tested yourself on how many words you can write in a half-hour, you can calculate how many half-hours you'd need in a week to achieve that ultimate goal. If you can write 500 words in a half-hour, the literary writer would only need 5 half hours a week to achieve his goal -- which leaves plenty of time for thinking and preparing so that the 500 words are brilliant.

I would only need 12 half hours a week, which still isn't that many. Of course, I also need prep time for all those stories. Lots of brainstorming and dreaming.

If you don't have enough half-hours in your week to achieve what you want, consider the following things: You can work on changing your life to give you more time. You can work on your writing to need less time. You can prioritize your writing to give yourself time to develop the skills and schedule you need.

And if you write what you can while you are developing these skills and life changes: slow and steady will win your race for you.

I hope this exercise makes you see that your dreams are possible, but if your dreams are very high, and your current skills very low, just remember that you can work to bring them closer together. I'll be talking about techniques to get you there.

I uploaded Harsh Climate tonight to Smashwords and Kindle. (It's available on Smashwords right now, but it takes a while to process to get it up anywhere else.) I will be jumping feet first into the dare now -- trying to get a draft of Old Paint done. My posts will likely be shorter and pithier for a bit -- mainly tips on specific techniques to prepare for writing, and for getting the most out of a writing session.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Productivity - How Much Can You Write?

This is the second part of the "Outrunning the Corgis of Time" series - which is about Productivity.

Before you can set a reasonable goal that challenges you but does not defeat you, you must find out how much you can do.

Most of us don't know how fast we write. We might have tested ourselves in a marathon effort like NaNoWriMo, but very often that involves a special effort to make more time - skipping sleep, canceling appointments and other things for the duration of the effort.

But that doesn't tell you what you can really do on an ordinary day in an ordinary amount of time -- time you might have available on any day -- like a half-hour.

There is something magical about a half-hour.

Because it's so short, you can fit it in almost anywhere. You can throw yourself into it, with no fear of wearing out. You also don't ahve to worry about accomplishing anything major, because it's only a half-hour. It's a very pure unit of time. You can resist playing Angry Birds or checking your email for that amount of time. (Yes, you can. Set a timer if you must, but you CAN resist for a half-hour.) You can actually concentrate on one thing without fearing you will neglect anything else.

There is also something magical about how much you can accomplish in a half-hour.

Because, you know, it's easy. Anybody can do something for a half-hour.

It's such a productive unit of time, that many writers use it as the basis for their schedules. Set a timer, write for a half-hour, take a ten minute break, and set the timer again, write another half-hour. Others use a half-hour sprint as a kind of warm up for a longer session -- it gets you focused and then you just take off after that.

I find it can be a great way to start off the day when I'm on a serious dare. When I do a half-hour's writing in the morning (even though I'm not a morning person) I have this feeling all day that I'm ahead of the game. I have a nice solid bit of writing to start off my real writing session in the evening.

So, yesterday's challenge, with the brainstorming and the freewriting and all that, was to charge your batteries for today's challenge:

Today I want you to pick an idea from your brainstorming session, or a scene you need to work on for your work-in-progress. Then I want you to get yourself energized with some phyiscal activity, then sit yourself down and just write for a half-hour.

The goal here is not to be brilliant (that comes with practice, remember?) but to measure what you can do. How fast do you write, when you give yourself a chance to really fully concentrate on it?

Do this half-hour sprint exercise several times. It can be during one longer writing session, or spread out over several days. Some sessions will be more productive than others, but you will be able to figure out what you can do on average -- and also what conditions make it easier or harder to do well.

We'll come back to this later, when we put it together with your dreams and reality, and figure out how to get there from here.

Tomorrow we're going to talk about winning the lottery...well, not the real lottery. The writing lottery -- what would you do if you had all the success you wanted?