Author of 'The Cain File' – a Kindle Scout Selection

on writing

Ten books that made me want to be a writer

Who doesn’t read ‘top ten’ lists? There’s one going round at the moment where people rate their ten favorite books, and I was inspired to list the ones that influenced me as a writer. Here are ten by authors at the top of their game, whose stories reverberated, whose voices made me want to find one of my own. Books that made me say ‘I want to do that.’

10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) – Many a true word written in jest. Wins the opening line award: ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.’

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the_postman_always_rings_twice-cover9 The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain) – Cain was master of the breakneck-paced novel with scummy characters you love to root for.

8. The Stranger (Albert Camus) – Another terrific opener: ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday.’ Who says you can’t tell vs. show? Fun Fact: Camus was influenced by James M. Cain.

7. The Dancer Upstairs (Nicholas Shakespeare) – The story of a South American detective trying to do the right thing in a country beset by corruption and civil war. And then he falls in love.

6. Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith) – Anything Highsmith wrote is steeped in psychological turmoil. This was her first. Hitchcock was compelled to make it into an equally excellent film.

"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” – Patricia Highsmith

5. God’s Pocket (Peter Dexter) – An orgy of wonderfully low rent characters, including one who drives around with a body in the back of a refrigeration truck and you just hope he gets away with it.

4 Killshot (Elmore Leonard) – Leonard pioneered the modern crime novel. This is his darkest and most powerful.Unknown

3. Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham) – 50,000 words too long but what words. Daring stuff for its time about a lost soul who falls for a woman of questionable morals. There’s a reason Maugham was one of the most popular writers of his era.

2. The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – I dare you not to be moved by this haunting tale of love between father and son during the apocalypse.

1. The Ginger Man (JP Donleavy) – One man’s battle against sobriety, decency and sanity. Hysterically funny and tragic at the same time. A masterpiece.

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Those are my ten. Did I miss a must-read gem? Feel free to let me know.

Viven los escritores!


The Literary Chain Letter – aka ‘My Writing Process’

I’ve been tagged to tell you how I do what I do when it comes to doing what I love best to do: writing. Specifically, my writing process – or lack of one. But I’m happy to make something up. Well, I am a fiction writer.

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My writing process (high level view)

For the trail of this writing process request chain see Mark Miller, who referred me, and whose entry you may read by clicking said link. You will discover that Mark can really write, not only because he’s good, but also because he writes non-fiction, which requires sticking to the facts.

I truly admire anyone who can turn the truth into something readable as I find it a little – er – restrictive. I’m like the Irishman who had such a respect for the truth that he was known to use it in emergencies. Anyway, I digress. Which is part of my writing process actually: digression. Call it exploration. Research. But, back to the truth – briefly – to quote my old writing teacher, the stalwart Jim Frey. (No, not that Jim Frey, who committed a disgracia on Oprah. Talk about not sticking to the truth.) I mean the Jim Frey of ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’, who said ‘if your story needs a BART station in Golden Gate Park, then there’s a BART station in Golden Gate Park.’ (There isn’t, by the way, for those of you who don’t live in the People’s Republic of San Francisco.) The point is, it’s FICTION. It doesn’t have to be true, just believable. And sometimes, the more outlandish, the more believable.

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There are many approaches to effective writing.

I’m work-shopping a Noir novel at the moment, channeling the demons of Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith and corralling them into a ’70s biker novel with a woman bent on revenge, and I can’t believe my fellow work-shoppers are buying some of the things Colleen Hayes, who gets out of prison and goes hunting for her wayward teenage daughter, gets up to. They don’t seem to have issue with the ‘fact’ that a bascially nice person goes nuts with a shotgun, but more with the very basic aspects of character – motivation, capacity, growth – that affect all characters in all novels under development. Like they say, if you can make a reader (or viewer) believe a man can fly, they must want to believe it.

But I digress.

Like the man said, who wants to read about people who never really existed, doing things that never really happened? I do. And so do a lot of you. And I want to write about it, too. What an arrogant thought, really, thinking that someone wants to read something you just made up. But they do. If it connects. And, to do that, it has to connect with the author. So that’s part of the reason my writing process might seem so fluid. Because looking for inspiration, that little nugget, requires a lot of wild casting and hoping the line doesn’t get snagged in a tree. Or around your neck. But if it does – so what? Print is cheap. You’re not shooting a movie. Go big.

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In my other life, the one where I make money, I’m a computer programmer, and one of the tenets of modern software development is to iterate. Start with something and keep refactoring it, until it works. Don’t shoot for perfection right off. To me, writing fiction and code have much in common that way. All programmers write code their own way too.

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I like to write women protagonists. Why? I find them a great contrast to most of my bad guys (who tend to be guys) and I think that women characters can have a wider emotional range. They get away with a lot of things men can’t. I admire writers who can write dark sympathetic male characters. Case in point: Stephen King. In ‘The Shining’ his protagonist breaks his five-year-old son’s arm and the reader still identifies with him.

Some rules I follow but not always:

1. Don’t keep going back to the beginning of your draft every time you sit down in front of your computer (or pen and paper). Push ahead.

2. But do sit down at your computer (or pen and paper) as much as possible. Some people say every day but if you work for a living this may not be doable. But half an hour writing is better than half an hour not writing.

3. Be prepared to throw away most of what you write. Keith Richards jammed for hours – months, in many cases – to come up with a riff for one of those three minute gems. It was worth it. Segovia practiced for five hours per day. Write a lot and be prepared to write a lot of sh*t. It’s good enough for Henning Mankell.

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One of the tamer Sasquatch Erotica titles out there.

4. Read as much as you can. Read what you want to write. For me, those are my heroes (Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith) but I also read the odd classic and I even read some junk. I’m an American author and popular fiction (and culture) is ingrained in me. I draw the line at Sasquatch erotica however.

5. Work-shop your work. If you don’t, you’re an amateur. Listen to the critiques. If more than two critiquers make the same comment, they’re right. Sorry, Hemingway, you got to kill your darlings.

6. There is no rule six.

7. I like to write early in the morning, mostly because that’s when I have time but also because my mind isn’t clogged with mundane garbage yet. I don’t check my stocks before I write, read email, or do anything that pulls me out of the ‘fictive dream.’

8. I read my work out loud.

9. I listen to all the critique but in the end it’s my story. I need to decide what happens. This is so hard but for me was the breakthrough that made my work better (IMHO). Trust your instincts. ‘Write from the fingertips’ Jim Frey says.

10. I write thrillers and mysteries. It’s important to stay within the genre, whatever genre you choose. Literary fiction is a genre, by the way. But by the same token, you need to break the genre, just a little, to make your story fresh.

11. I try to have fun and remember why I write. I get disappointed and frustrated just like everyone else but if the entire world isn’t in love with my books, that’s their problem. And it’s a first world problem to be wallowing in writer’s angst.

"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” – Patricia Highsmith

12. I do quite a lot of research (hasn’t Google made research easier, everyone?) For my biker Noir novel, I read more than I wanted on the history of Meth in this country and all I can tell you is that fiction ain’t got nothin’ on the truth. I’m still trying to get some of those images out of my mind. Much of my research is on the page in early drafts but eliminated as I rewrite. Tip of the iceberg is what I aim for. Elmore Leonard is a master at including that one detail that brings a scene or character to life.

13. There is no such thing as writer’s block. As Jim Frey said, what would you say to a plumber who said that he (or she) had ‘plumber’s block?’ You’re a plumber. Get to work. If you can’t be wonderfully creative today, do some low-level self-editing. There’s always something to do to make your novel better.

So there you have it.

I want to call out three fellow authors I think are innovative and pass the baton, and hope they follow suit and tell us how they write. (It’s a chain letter. If we all do this the entire world will be inundated with blog posts about writing. And then what? A few million authors at the end of the chain will be stuck and the internet will probably break. But if my three chosen authors wish to participate I look forward to their secrets for success.)

Tess Collins – author of Appalachian fiction and more
Anne-Rae Vasquez – paranormal, fantasy, dystopian (and more)
Jill Nojack – queen of the fae (and more!)

If you write, I hope my humble thoughts have encouraged you in some way. We all do it differently but we all do a lot of it the same. What an arrogant thing to think that someone will want to read something you made up.

But I digress.

¡vivan los escritores!


Behind the Page – Author Tess Collins

tess_collinsBack in the old days, when all books were still printed on paper, I was fortunate enough to be a member of a writers’ workshop in Berkeley run by the infamous Jim Frey, who pulled zero punches when it came to manuscript critique. I, along with others, got ‘Freyed’ on more than one occasion and although it was painful and traumatic and I still wake up weeping from time to time, if I am a better writer today, much of it is due to Jim’s workshop and the enthusiasm of the other members who not only took their writing seriously and wrote well, but also gave excellent feedback.

One of those members is this month’s guest on Behind the Page.

While the rest of us were struggling to put in paragraph breaks and trying to cut the nine pages of description we thought essential to the beginning of every scene, Tess Collins was already publishing mysteries, writing plays and managing a theater in San Francisco. Plus she looked fabulous so you might have thought we all hated her. But she was just too nice and her feedback was top notch and thoughtful to boot.

Her latest novel – NOTOWN – has just won the ‘Crime Fiction and Regional’ categories in the Beverly Hills Book Awards.

Tess Collins, welcome to our humble forum.

  • Middlesboro, Kentucky … all the way to the People’s Republic of San Francisco?

I stopped in San Francisco thinking that a boyfriend would be following me out here, and we’d have a fantastical and charmed life living in the city by the bay. He never showed up, and for a while, I shivered, broken-hearted, on a street corner. His not showing up was the best thing that ever happened to me. I put all that angst to work in novels and such. The rest is history—or should I say her-story.

  •  A little bit country or a little bit Rock’n’Roll? I know you had a thing at one time for Davy Jones of the Monkees.

davyjonesOMG, I am out-ed! I not only thought I was going to marry Davy Jones, but also Mark Lindsay, Sajid Kahn, Bobby Sherman—the list goes on. Not sure how I would marry all of them, but somehow it was going to work out. Today, I am still single. Music—anything ballad, from Madonna to Garth Brooks. I think because ballads tell a story. Started with Billie Joe McAllister. What’d they throw off that that darn bridge anyway? And why’d he jump? Had my butt swaying in that southern fried kind of way. But the story questions nagged in my mind, maybe encouraged a storyteller’s perception.

  • The Slanted Door restaurant or Drive-Thru?

I’m big on popcorn and watching a movie. The trick is coconut oil and lots of pink salt. I’ve become a better cook as I’ve gotten older, and my perfect date is to make dinner together at home and watch the MMA fights. 

  • You work, write AND run BearCat Press, an Indie publishing company you founded. Are you just showing off?

BearCatPressLogofile(Web)Showing off—pfffff. If I want to show off, I put on a tight pair of jeans and sashay through a lobby of my hated enemies. I have a nice ass in my old age. But on to the stuff you really want to know about—I’d always thought I might like to start a small press when I retired. Something to keep the ole brain cells from deteriorating. I knew so many people that had good books molding on their computers, including me, and one day I woke up and said to meself, “What in piss’s name are you waiting for?”  So, even though I’m overworked, I added ‘starting a small press’ to the list of things to do that day. I try to keep it manageable by only doing a couple books now and then, but probably will grow the company once I retire from my day job. 

  • What made you realize you were a writer? When?

700dpiHOT-cover-NookCan’t say that I really think of myself as a writer as much as I do a storyteller. I come from a long line of kin who could sit out on the front porch and tell you the life story of every ancestor they ever had—the rousers, the lovers, the misunderstood, and the ambitious. No boring people in my ancestry! My mother tells me that when I was a toddler, I’d make up stories about being a fairy princess and that I had to protect my brother from an evil witch—a part she kindly played. When I was cornered, I put a magical circle around us so she couldn’t get us. I’ve always had an imagination.

  • Author(s) who inspire you? One who doesn’t?

Grimm’s fairytales, anything by Thomas Hardy, who inspired me as a young author; I think John Irving spins a good tale; Dennis Lehane gives his stories depth beyond the typical crime drama.  The BearCat authors are fantastic—Yves Fey, Richard Anderson, Beth Tashery Shannon; AND I was able to twist James N. Frey’s arm to give me a book of short stories that he did with his mentor Lester Gorn called ‘The Art of the Traditional Short Story’. I was so thrilled to be able to publish that book that I nearly fainted. While I don’t think it’s helpful to dish writers who you don’t get because let’s face it, writing is subjective and even the worse written novel in the world took a lot of work, I tend to put down any book that bores me in the first five chapters. 

tessIphone

  • What makes it worth eleven and a half US dollars to sit in a movie theater behind someone who is texting?

Geesh, you got me admitting all this stuff I’d never say out loud. I’ve watched the Harry Potter movies so many times I’ve got certain scenes memorized. Now, I’d never write anything like Harry Potter, maybe that’s why I like watching the movies. I don’t like to think too much when I watch a movie, maybe because I live so dangerously inside my head. So movies for me tend to be the ones that take me out of the mundane world and throw me in with hobbits and wizards and witches and all manner of magical creatures. I can stand some time in history too. I’m obsessed with the Tudors, the Rivers/Woodville family (that might have included a few witches on the mother’s side), and any time period that changed the tempo of the world. 

  • The hardest part of writing a novel is …  ?

The middle. Let’s face it, the middle sucks. I know A. I know Z. I just have to make sure getting to Z makes sense. Sometimes when the middle changes Z, the only thing you can do is bang your head against the nearest wall. Head bruises, that’s the hardest part of writing—the head bruises. 

  • ‘Writing is a mental disorder’ says one of my (and your) writing mentors (Jim Frey). What say you?

Jim Frey – “Writing is a mental disorder”.

I don’t know who said, “if you don’t have to write, then don’t,” but no truer words have ever been spoken. So many people have come up to me with their idea for a novel and they’ve never taken a writing class, but they’re really sure they can write a novel. Well, we all know the ending to that story. I spent eight years in James N. Frey’s workshops before my first novel was published, not to mention the mentorship with Kentucky Poets laureate, James Baker Hall and Gurney Norman; and classes with novelist and essayist, Ed McClanahan while in college. You have to more than want to be a writer, you have to know that storytelling is in your soul, and to not give expression to those tales will send you to hell faster than a newbie on the Hogwarts Express. Then, once you know that, you have to learn the craft of making a story work: how to plot a scene, raise a conflict, exploit an objective correlative.

  • Have you jumped to anything more than a conclusion?

If I’m stressed I like floating in an isolation tank. It takes away the sense of responsibility for that one hour. I keep trying to think of what I do for fun, and nothing is popping into my head. Mostly I feel like I’m just behind in writing all the books that are piling up on my ‘to do’ list. Finishing off my growing list of books is a responsibility I take seriously, even if it is pisses me off that I’m so far behind.

  • Your brush with greatness?

I got my photo taken once with Hugh Jackman—take that femme-enemies. See his arm around my shoulder? Jealous much?

TessCollinsHughJackman

Tess Collins and one of her fans

  • You’re a busy person. How do you find time to write? How much do you write?

I’m an organized alpha female. Need I say more. Sigh. Get out of my way.

  •  ‘Notown’? Like, why? Latest work in progress?

I grew up in a neighborhood called Noetown. It was known as the rough part of town. My granny, whom I lived with, slept with a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson under her pillow. Now growing up in a place like that, you know there were stories to tell. I knew I had to give voice to that place, and once the decision was made, Noetown spoke to me like a goddess telling her tale of the heroic and the tragic. NOTOWN is the first of a quartet of books that take place in Midnight Valley. I’m working on the second one now that I think will come out in 2015.

  • William Morris just bought BearCat Press for one million dollars. Now what?

Dude, I’m gonna sleep. Have to say the administrative work is more than I like to do, so a great company buying me out whom I know will support the BCP books the way they should be supported—that would be great! Gives me more time to write.  Here’s the thing—I often hear best-selling writers say they’d be destitute if they didn’t write because it’s the only thing they know how to do. I always think—losers.  I’m good at a lot of stuff, including operating businesses, adding numbers, keeping track of things. Not gonna scare me with a P&L. Hey, where’s my list of things to do?

  • Sorry, William Morris changed their mind but they did send you a ten dollar gift certificate because they felt bad. What happens next?

I call up Mr. Morris and say ‘thank you’ because my mother taught me to be polite when plotting vengeance.

  • The rest of us got old and married. Not you. Care to comment on that, even though it’s really none of our business?

NotownI guess if I really wanted to get married, I would have found a way to do it. I think at some point in my youth, I decided that I’d rather have a lot of lovers then one husband. As for “Old”—I prefer “Wise”. Women in my family don’t wrinkle, so as I age, I plan to be the wise crone whose magic you wished you had a piece of back in the day.

  • Ever wanted to just quit and watch TV and eat bonbons?

Quit, no, but I do watch TV between writing chapters. My current favorites are: Revenge, Once Upon a Time, The Good Wife, Justified, The Walking Dead and I’ve watched The Young and Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful for over thirty years. I watch a lot of TV between chapters. It’s a weakness, I know, but there are worse addictions.

  • If you could only do one thing, what would it be?

Live with snow leopards.

Tess, I and my many readers want to thank you for taking this time to let us get to know you better when you could have been accepting another book award, or opening a film studio or an orphanage.

Visit Tess Collins’ website.

¡viven los escritores!

-Check out last month’s guest: Indie Author Anne-Rae Vasquez


Be Kind – Don’t Rewind (or ‘Don’t go back to page 1 every time you edit your draft’)

keep-calm-and-edit-laterOK, so it’s an analogy that dates me. But in olden times, when you took your rental tapes[*] back to the video store[*], the clerk with the nose ring would get annoyed if you didn’t rewind them. That was because the next renter would have to rewind the VHS[*] tape and this could take several minutes and wear out his/her VCR[*]. Sometimes you were charged a five dollar fee if you didn’t rewind. Hence the phrase: Be Kind-Rewind.


([*]: younger readers may have to Google these terms.)


This rule happens to be the reverse when it comes to writing a long piece, however – particularly an early draft of a novel.

So you’ve got thirty gifted—but rough—pages and you’ve submitted them to your critique group. They love your quirky Southern novel with its ensemble cast but there are clarity errors (it’s a first draft). And they bring up stuff that simply doesn’t work. And they have a few suggestions for improvements. Great! With their feedback, you’ve even got a few new ideas of your own. So back you go to page 1, to get it all right before you move on. It makes sense. You need a good foundation[**].

Before you know it, revision becomes rewrite.
But you get it all down and resubmit to your workgroup. Or your friends. If you have any left.

And so it goes.

Six months later you find yourself still working your first thirty pages. You need to get them right. It’s important (and it is—eventually). But for some reason you never reach the end of the first draft. The members of your critique group display forced smiles when you resubmit.

What happens when you rewind you manuscript too often.

What happens when you ‘rewind’ your manuscript too often.

If this sounds familiar, you are in good company.

The risks of over-editing the beginning of an early draft are many:

1. You never get to page thirty-one. Or it takes you forever (and you end up changing the first thirty pages anyway, once you finally complete the drafts, now that you’ve driven the entire journey).

2. Your work suffers from workshop bloat. Each subsequent submission adds a layer of earnest explanation to your fiery prose and loses power with the reader, even trained readers like your stalwart writer friends.

3. Suggestions for improvement are sometimes not as valid as they could be as a result of seeing the work too often.

4. Key elements get left out because you cut them. But they are still locked in the minds of you and your critiquers. I had a pair of earrings in a work-in–progress that are essential to the plot yet they somehow disappeared from a scene and a new reader was confused. Previous readers had no issue–the earrings were still on camera because they had been seen before. They were in the first draft. But now they’re gone, thanks to my over-zealous rewriting.

5. The vibrancy fades. The Thrill is Gone, as BB King so bluntly put it. That’s because it suffocated due to premature over-editing, which sounds like something you might take little blue pills for. Remember that Southern novel? I was referring to a dear friend whose book opened with a terrific, wonderful, quirky scene set in a small town square. But there were a lot of characters and it was a little confusing. (It was a first draft.) But subsequent rapid edits without moving forward completely diminished this scene and it got chopped and buried in a lot of narrative that tried to clarify. The magic was gone, unbeknownst to the author.

“I honestly believe that the first draft—your instinctive, heartfelt product—is the best.” Lee Child said this, and he has sold a few (million) books. Make that tens of millions.

You MUST edit—like mad—eventually.

Under-edited books are the bane of the self-publishing world. IMO Indie authors must work even harder to combat the stigma of sloppy self-pubbers. As number two, we have to try harder.
James M. Cain said anyone who wasn’t prepared to rewrite a book fourteen times had no business writing it in the first place, but he was talking about an entire (i.e. completed) book. If the manuscript isn’t finished, don’t do it.

Don’t do it.

writers_blockSuggestions:

I view submissions like gold and try not to resubmit a section more than twice to my group, and twice only after a period of time has passed.

If you leave off at page thirty, start the next writing session on page twenty-nine (no earlier) and press on, until the draft is finished. If I have group feedback on earlier sections I leave myself a bullet list of notes before the offending section and forge ahead without any immediate revision until I am done and ready for the next draft.

Baby steps. In my other life I am a software engineer. People think I’m crazy when I say this but there are many similarities to writing a novel and writing a computer program. In software engineering there is the concept of ‘iterative development’, which boils down to ‘don’t try to do it all at once’. Write small improvements to the program with each successive iteration, making sure each ‘draft’ works until it all functions efficiently. Try to do it in one or two passes and most mortals will fail–or write a crappy program. I apply the same methodology to my fiction writing after my first drafts—(usually two). Sometimes I do temporal adjustment, getting all the dates and times in sync. Sometimes I just do dialog tags. A draft like that can take mere hours. Sometimes I flesh out a single character’s POV over a specific topic in a single draft and not bother with other themes or characters just yet. I do a lot of drafts but they feel manageable.

Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to write an entire novel that isn’t worth a second draft. I’ve done it, more than once, I’m sorry to say. But so have many successful authors. I once wrote a horror novel (I thought I wanted to write a horror novel and thought I could) but it simply didn’t work. It’s sitting somewhere on my hard drive collecting digital dust. But I don’t regret it (too much) and I didn’t spend a year on the first thirty pages. Henning Mankell said you have to write a lot of crap if you want to write something good. The Rolling Stones used to spend months in the studio just to come up with one three-minute gem. Be prepared to fail.

You’re not the first author to have the OCD early editing problem. The temptation to go back and revise is huge. It’s natural.

Back on p1 - again.

Back on P1 – again.

Page 31.

I finished my first draft first and P31 was a breeze.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” said Terry Pratchett. They made him a knight so I guess he knows what he’s talking about. There’s no need to get your story right for everyone until you tell it to yourself. That can take a draft. Or even two.


In the age of word processors it’s too easy to over-revise, and risk not finishing, or wind up with some brown sludge that doesn’t do anything for anyone. Shakespeare and Hemingway did not have the physical capability to rewrite that you and I do. I’m going to bet they probably didn’t keep going back to page one as often as we did because they didn’t have the technology. Seems like they didn’t need it.

¡viven los escritores!

** – not always – see my post first draft jitters and driving at night


Behind the Page – Interview with Author Anne-Rae Vasquez

This month I am beginning a new series called “Behind the Page” where I interview up-and-coming authors who deserve attention.

arv

Anne-Rae Vasquez is an Indie author and filmmaker from Vancouver, BC. She has published half a dozen books and novels which include YA fiction, poetry, web design and cooking. She wrote AND directed Almost a Turkish Soap Opera, which won a slew of Indie film awards. She also blogs, reviews books, cooks, raises a family and … well, you get the idea – she generally puts most people’s work schedules to shame. I had the pleasure to first make Anne-Rae’s acquaintance on fiverr.com when she graciously agreed to put together a very cool book trailer for my latest novel (which, if you feel so inclined, you can see here). When I suggested that perhaps she might not have charged me sufficiently for all the terrific work she did, she replied ‘Oh no, you paid me enough’. She obviously has talent to spare and is generous to a fault with her fellow Indie authors. Let’s find out more about Anne-Rae Vasquez.

1. What’s it like to live in a communist country?

Actually Canada is a democracy although the political structure is quite different than the United States. Canada has far too many political parties, which makes the election process somewhat ineffectual. We do have a government administered health care system but it is NOT free, with the exception, I think, of a handful of provinces.

Your question highlights what many people don’t understand: the differences between Communism, Socialism, and what-have-you, thus labeling all of this under Communism.

2. Beatles or Rolling Stones? Or is it more like Partridge Family vs. Monkees?

Beatles. Can’t believe you had to ask! Although for a brief period of my youth, I did have a thing for The Monkees, probably because they were on TV every day.

3. Almost a Turkish Soap Opera? You raised money to write and film this fascinating movie (which readers can watch on Anne-Rae’s site here), and filmed the dang thing yourself. You’re a ‘regular’ person, meaning you don’t own a film company and you work for a living and raise a family. What drove you to undertake such an effort?

Anne-Rae directing

Directing with a smile

I did not film “Almost a Turkish Soap Opera” by myself. I wrote the screenplay and directed but the production was handled by Joseph Khalil (Sababa Productions) and the wonderful cast and crew made the film something I’m proud of. I have been working behind the scenes in film production since high school and always dreamed of one day making and directing my own movie. The experience was a springboard to other creative projects.

4. Cupcakes or Cheetos?

Oatmeal chocolate chip, big top cupcakes. Love baking and eating them!

5. Doubt. Cristal. Resist. All are single word titles of yours that pack a punch. What’s in a title? How important is title to you as a writer? Do you agonize over them?

A good title that people can remember is essential. It needs to be catchy but also reflective of the story. It’s easier for people to search “Doubt” on Goodreads than “Doubting the Reality of It All”, don’t you think?

6. What made you realize you were a writer? And when?

I knew I was a writer in grade school, when my teacher asked the class to submit one paragraph to describe what we did on the weekend. I submitted a novella.

7. Author(s) who inspire you? One who doesn’t?

Anita Daimant, author of the “Red Tent” (a story told in the eyes of the women of Biblical times). Malka Marom, who wrote “Sulha” (which means “forgiveness” in both Hebrew and Arabic) and Khaled Hosseini (“The Kite Runner”). These writers craft culturally rich stories that show the reality of life from the perspective of people the mainstream media tends to ignore.

8. What makes it worth eleven dollars (US) for you to sit in a theater (theatre to you) with your shoes cemented to the floor with nacho cheese?

What doesn’t, you mean? ZERO movies in a theatre (theater:)). I prefer to watch at home on my 55″ flat screen TV with my family, eating popcorn I pop with real butter. Actually I’d rather watch an entire TV series in a marathon sitting, which you can do now. Stories told in an hour or two just don’t do anything for me anymore. There is so much more creativity in many TV shows these days and they are visually equal to what you’d see in the theatre.

9. The hardest part of writing a novel is … [fill in the blank]

Marketing it.

10. ‘Writing is a mental disorder’ says one of my writing mentors (Jim Frey). What say you?

Writing is where my nightmares and dreams find immortality.

11. Do you water ski much?

For me water and ski don’t mix. For fun and relaxation, I go on film shoots.

12. Social media? How important in promoting your work? How much is too much?

I actually hate promoting anything. I prefer to share with others as much as I can which is why I did the fiverr gig. My editor (who doubles as my promotional manager) advised me to raise money for Doubt via kickstarter but I balked at the idea of begging people to fund my book. So I decided to leverage my film making experience to assist others and finance projects that way. An author acquaintance paid over $700 for her book trailer! When I saw the video, I couldn’t believe it. It looked like a high school student put it together. My fiverr gig costs a fraction of what my friend could have paid and provides an affordable alternative for authors.

13. You’re a techie by day. It’s no coincidence how many successful Indie authors are technically savvy. How important is this? Or does your day job just get in the way of creative stuff, like watching cat videos?

Techie means I can produce all my own work from A to Z. I don’t need to outsource book formatting or worry about who is going to make my promo videos. I often create my own book covers and it means more power to me and less expense.

14. How do you find time to write? How much do you write?

I only have a few hours a week but still manage to write two to three chapters. Then I meet with my editor and we do a rewrite together. She’s a tough Latina and sometimes we butt heads. But in the end the process feels great – magical.
Doubt
15. ‘Doubt’ and the ‘Among Us’ series has just been picked up by Knopf Doubleday and you are now a multi-millionaire. What happens next?

I go and make a bunch of movies and at least one TV series, that’s what!

16. Sorry, I lied — trick question. But you have just won just *ten dollars* in a scratcher that you bought at a gas (petrol) station. What happens next?

I buy gas.

17. Most thrilling moment as a writer?

Every time a new fan writes a review. They don’t have to like everything about the book but knowing that they immersed themselves in my world and then took the time to write a review, well … that makes it worthwhile.

18. Least thrilling?

The final editing …

19. If you were put in charge of Canada, what’s the first thing you would change?

People in charge are frequently puppets of the rich and powerful. The world of politics is not a place I want to be.

20. I’m enjoying “Doubt”, even though I have to move my lips when I read. What inspired you to write a YA book about video gamers?

One day one of my kids came up and asked me: “Mom, why do you write books that we can’t read?” That’s when I decided to write a book that my kids could share with their friends. They all love playing video games. Personally I wondered about the benefits of being a gamer. Were there any? But after sitting with my kids and their friends and watching them play, I saw a LOT of skills that can be used for the greater good. Then I asked myself: could gamers save the world? And the answer was … well, you’ll just have to read the book.

Anne-Rae, I and my millions of readers want to thank you for taking this time to let us get to know you a little better when you could have been baking baklava.

Thank you for inviting me … I actually made some baklava this morning … enjoy! baklava


Farewell Elmore

elmore

The man who pioneered the modern crime novel has passed on to that great Detroit in the sky.

Many good things are going to be said about Elmore Leonard in the days and weeks to come. And they’re all true.

So I’m just going to post a modest word of thanks to the author who influenced me the most. If I’m a better writer today, it’s in part because I discovered a copy of Killshot in a secondhand bookstore many years ago and was immediately carried away by the tough and tender prose and gritty, quirky, terrifying characters. Twenty years ago I didn’t know that fiction could be as original and literary as what Mr. Leonard made look so easy. His use of close third person is only one of his many masterful techniques in creating a world where the reader finds him or herself rooting for killers and drug dealers. Elmore Leonard once said that his bad guys get up in the morning, go to the closet, and decide what pants to wear.

When I was starting out, I had the very good luck to meet Elmore Leonard at a book signing. It was a Kidney Foundation thing that I’m sure he got roped into by his publisher and, unbelievably, no one else was lining up to talk to the man who brought us Hombre and Chili Palmer. They were all too busy hovering around Amy Tan (who has three kidneys as it turns out). So I got to spend a good twenty minutes chatting with ‘Dutch’ Leonard and, as banal as it sounds, he was the nicest guy. I told him, sheepishly (I’m sure he would have edited out the ‘sheepishly’) that I was writing a crime novel and looking for an agent. What advice did he have?

“Don’t send it out until you think it can be published as it stands,” I remember him saying.

Good advice.

I still have the book he signed for me that day, along with his other fine, funny, chilling works.

Here then, are ten rules for good writing from the Dostoevsky of Detroit. My favorite is to “leave out the parts readers tend to skip”. Follow any one of Elmore’s rules, or even a few, and watch your writing improve.

Farewell, Elmore.

elmoreleonard10rules


How to Write a Crappy Novel: 12 Rules

Too much ink has been spilled on how to write the great American novel. Let me show you how to write a crap one.

Here are twelve ways:

boredbookdog1. Descriptive passages (long). This is key. At least thirty percent of your novel should be pondering, descriptive prose. Details. Lovingly described. And remember—don’t tie your details to a telling character trait, like the evil prince’s amulet. Describe the trees outside the prince’s house for a paragraph (two is better) before he utters a word of dialog. Set the scene. Warm up those engines. Describe the engines. You are an artist. Weave that wandering tale. Forget what Elmore Leonard said about leaving out the parts people skip over. What did he know?  Long descriptive passages.

2. Open your novel with a character waking up. The best way to do this is to have your character wake up, describe everything he or she sees, then do a lot of reflecting, and then have another short descriptive passage. Especially if you’re writing a thriller. This way your readers can really get to know your character before anything happens. Then:

3. Backstory! Lots of backstory. Flashbacks. Flashbacks within flashbacks if you’re a pro. Do not trust your readers to pick things up on the fly. Is your novel about some man in the throes of alcoholism? Then, as a reader, I probably need to know where his parents went to school. And what they like to eat. Same if your protagonist is the first female astronaut about to take off on her maiden flight.

4. Cross Genres. One thing that keeps readers on their toes is when they’re never quite sure what kind of book they’re reading. Confining your novel to one genre won’t accomplish that. The crappiest novels have elements of mystery/paranormal/sci fi/literary/young adult/romance and vampires all thrown in. And erotica. And memoir, even if your memoir would put your mother to sleep. And more vampires.

boredbooktwo5. Growth. Don’t do it. Who wants to read about characters who change through adversity all the time? Or reach some epiphany by the end of the novel? Hasn’t that been done before? And please, don’t have minor character growth either, where characters display subtle levels of change from the beginning to the end of each scene.

6. Conflict. Another no-no. Ties in with Growth. Who wants a character in terrible trouble, on the brink of failure, only to have them in constant conflict with other characters too? It only creates tension. Lots of eating scenes where characters ruminate on mildly amusing anecdotes (backstory), with *description* are best. If you somehow do manage to accidentally slip some growth or conflict into your novel, under no circumstances have it escalate into a series of events where your protagonist must meet ever-increasing challenges to achieve their goal.

7. Don’t workshop your novel. Those amateurs who think they know how to write? Think they know what your novel needs? Just because it’s got description and backstory they don’t get, they have the audacity to suggest you might consider trimming it. Perhaps they don’t feel engaged by your 800 page memoir with vampires. Why are you showing them your work in the first place? Do you want your ideas stolen? I’m going to say it again because you need to tell readers the same thing multiple times: don’t workshop.

8. Use lots of colorful dialog tags. Forget the ‘he said/she said’ rule. Much better to treat the reader to ‘he interjected angrily’ or ‘she shouted demonstratively’.

9. Tell, don’t show. Why use a bunch of words to build up a scene, appealing to at least two senses at all times, where the character’s emotional state is revealed through action and situation? Much easier to simply say ‘Fred went to primary school when he was six’. Especially if Fred is the captain of a ship that is sinking.

pretentious - moi?10. Be cryptic. It’s not your job to hold the reader’s hand. They need to work for it. Art is never easy. You may not even be trying to tell the reader anything in the first place. The point is, it’s their responsibility to unearth the gem(s) in your description-laden prose. Great authors may not even ever know what their own novel is about. That’s just the way art works.

11. Vague protagonist. You know what your protagonist is thinking; if your readers are paying attention, so should they. No need to spell it out and spoil the magic.

12. Length. Since you are a great writer, the more the better. Lots of words. Lots! Who wants John Lennon for three minutes when you can have Yoko Ono screeching for an entire album side? See how long this piece is? I could have edited it down and made it shorter. But why? I’m an artist.

¡vivan los autores!


indie to the core – Amber Alert the Movie

Indie to the core!

I don’t normally post movie reviews but this taut indie thriller is done with such verve and spirit, despite its low budget. Probably, in part, because of it’s low budget. It gets to break rules that big movies can’t. There is so much that an aspiring author can learn from a story like Amber Alert the Movie.

A resourceful villain confronts a reluctant pursuer.

A resourceful villain confronts a reluctant pursuer.

Director Kerry Bellessa makes expert use of a single handheld camera in this flick reminiscent of other movies in the ‘found footage’ mold such as Blair Witch Project (which would have benefited from a plot and a script), and the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, a ‘70s sexploitive gorefest that’s impossible to watch and still feel human.

Summer Bellessa (from the credits it appears a lot of the Bellessa family were involved in the making of this movie) is Samantha Green, the extremely annoying – initially – friend of Nate (Chris Hill). Their relentless bickering, as they set off with Samantha’s younger brother manning the video camera on an indie filmmaking project of their own, almost made me stop watching. But the squabbling soon turns serious when they spot a Honda that’s just been flagged in an Amber Alert. They follow at a safe distance. At first. While Nate constantly comes up with reasons to drop the chase, Samantha keeps pushing. This conflict escalates nicely in a gas station where we watch the mysterious Honda driver tank up. When he goes to the restroom, Samantha – despite Nate’s pleading – takes a look in the car and, lo and behold, there IS a little girl in the back. Samantha manages to slip a microphone in the locked car and we soon learn that the driver is not just some disgruntled ex returning his daughter a day late.

The stakes rise yet again when our group is stopped by the police.

Then we learn that the Amber Alert has been called off.

Called off?

What choice do our hunters have now except to follow the supposed pedophile to his house? And, when the cops fail to show up – AGAIN – go inside the house – themselves? It’s menacing AND inevitable – a great situation for your story to be in.

I found myself riveted to Amber Alert once I got past the beginning. The pacing is fast, and the acting is really quite good, in particular Chris Hill, who plays a sort of cherubic Mickey Dolenz (I’m showing my age here) who would rather put his arm around Samantha than hunt down dangerous perverts. The single handheld camera is not overused as it is in some movies of this ilk and doesn’t draw attention to itself. The low budget film-making actually enhances the movie, giving it a gritty, real feel. The ending knocked me out, along with the snippet of a pre-amber alert Nate and Samantha during the credits, taken from more ‘lost footage’. The storytelling is beautifully simple and just shows that you don’t need $100 million and a special-effects crew to pull off a nail-biting thriller.

Indie authors can learn a lot from a movie like Amber Alert: an uncomplicated, straight-forward, lean story with rising conflicts and stakes. There are sympathetic, but not sentimental, nuanced characters with opposing passions that constantly put them at odds with each other. There is a first-rate villain. A terrific ending that blindsides you (it did me, anyway), and overall, a story appropriate to the genre but also contrary to what a big budget flick might have done.

I think that’s important.

They say that the trick of genre writing is to stay within the genre but, at the same time, bring something fresh to it. Not easy, but key if you want to tell a story people will remember. And get noticed.

I hope to see more indie thrillers as good as this and look forward to more work from the crew who put together Amber Alert the Movie.

¡viven los indies!


first draft jitters and driving at night

panick

You put together a step sheet.

Perhaps you used tools to help organize your characters and plot [1].

You wrote key scenes to see if it flew. Maybe even a short story or two.

Researched.

You read: other works that did what you wanted to do. Authors who influence you.

You kept it fluid but did enough ‘real-time editing’ so it didn’t turn into some formless sprawl.

Even so, as you get to where the end of that first draft might be in sight, it all starts to feel, well, just a little bit daunting. And improbable. It’s gotten away from you. Then, in a moment of darkness, you think: what the hell am I doing?

What was I thinking?

That sense of story that you felt so strongly before, that you were so sure of, that instinct, is nowhere to be found. Gone.

Relax.

It’s all a part of the process.

Make a note in your manuscript and move on. (I use three asterisks *** and something like ‘Fred needs more nuancing’, ‘cut this scene?’), hit ‘ctrl-enter’ and keep going.

E L Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And the second time around, you have a much better idea where you’re going. You can eliminate some of those unnecessary side trips. And run a few stop signs.

I’m a software developer by day and one of the modern rules of programming is ‘iteration’. Don’t try to do it all at once. Get something down that kind of does what you want it to. Then fix it. Or get rid of it. Or redo it. Then build upon it. Iterate. People think I’m crazy when I say that writing fiction is a lot like writing code but both have much in common. Both are creative processes. And both can be iterated until you have something that works.

“With every book, around two-thirds of the way through the first draft, absolute panic sets in.”

I would love to know the source of that quote. Sounds like another Doctorow. But Google failed me. It’s a great quote, all the same:

With every book, around two-thirds of the way through the first draft, absolute panic sets in.

That means I’m right on track.

If you’re jittery towards the end of that first draft, then you probably are as well.

¡viva los autores! 


[1] This time around I used yWriter5  – freeware that helps you flesh out characters, organize locations, scenes and details. People poo-poo these tools but I found it pretty nice to have quotes, songs and memories that apply to a particular character, their ‘below the iceberg’ info, right at hand. (back to post)


On the Block! No reading required – listen to my interview on Writer’s Block …

Listen to my interview with Writer’s Block critic extraordinaire Jason Stewart as we delve into topics literary and more: Sendero, Peru, The Drug Trade and its Consequences, Influences, Making it Real, Craft and, as I just said, more …  Jason has a real gift for organizing questions and material and making what we writers do actually sound interesting.


What are you wearing? Getting the details right

This post was inspired by Emily Wheeler’s post on dreaming about her characters.  (See Emily’s tea leaves)

They say that if your characters talk to you in dreams, you are doing something great. I’m lucky to have had that happen once or twice.

omg

But I usually have to start off on the physical. One of my protagonists is a Peruvian woman in her mid-thirties, lower economic bracket. Being male, I have to do extra homework to get her right.

A book club had me as a guest once and loved my first book but one woman wanted to know what kind of shoes Nina wore. What? She wears boots with her uniform, sneakers when she is solving crimes and pumps if going out. Yes, but what kind of shoes? I was caught off-guard.

Never again.

So now I start off scenes (internally) with a checklist. Most of the details won’t make it to the final draft (most of them, in fact) but I know they are there. It helps center  my character. Tip of the iceberg is what I show.

What is she wearing? How has she done her hair? In a ponytail because she is running a quick errand and it’s windy? What kind of shoes is she wearing? What brand? How many pairs does she own? No more than a few pair. One good pair of black heels to wear on special occasions. She keeps them in the box and wipes them off when she puts them away. Can she afford nail polish? What does she think of nail polish? Jeans? What kind of jeans would she wear if money were no object? Does she have an opinion on spending a fortune on jeans when a third of her country goes hungry?

I thought I was doing this but I wasn’t doing it enough.

The physical leads to the psychological.

Lipstick? The lipstick question got me on a Google search of Peruvian department stores.  No, I’m not weird. Well, not too much. I settled for a brand of lipstick a woman Nina’s age on a budget like hers might think was OK without being cheap or flashy. But she is Latina with a sense of style North American women might not share. All of this helps me get into her head. Physical leads to psychological.

I find the physical is a great place to start.  Elmore Leonard once said his criminals go to the closet every morning and ponder what pants to put on.

¡viven los escritores!


How to Critique Your Early Novel Draft Without Reading It

“There’s too much description, not enough conflict and your protagonist is vague.”

As authors, we are all guilty…

Kill your darlings!

This week I am channeling Jim Frey, writing mentor and friend (not to be confused with the James Frey of Oprah fame). If my work has any of the ingredients required of a damn good novel (a Jim Frey term) i.e. conflict, drama, plot, then it is because Jim kindly showed me the error of my ways when I turned out page after page of over-descriptive, confusing, navel-contemplating prose  (which I, of course, knew to be brilliant at the time).

1.    There’s too much description:
As you write your draft, the tendency will be to write long passages of description leading up to the actual scene (hopefully there is a scene coming and not just more long beautiful descriptive passages, but we’ve all done that too). This is known as ‘warming up your engines’, the need for a writer to set the scene for himself and immerse himself in the story which will one day be a fantastic novel. The answer? As you rewrite (remember: anyone can write but only a writer can rewrite) target these sections brutally and cut. If something is just too precious, even more so. “Kill your darlings,” as William Faulkner said. Elmore Leonard put it more directly: “Leave out the parts people skip over”. More often than not, that means long chunks of description.

2.    Not enough conflict:
Conflict is the key to good drama and we, as writers, tend to avoid it, especially during early drafts. We’re sitting in our little caves with the lights down low, banging out a masterpiece. For us the work is superb as is—unlike other novel drafts. As humans, we shy away from conflict. But conflict is what defines character and drives your plot. Every line of your novel should in some way be contributing to the conflict of the story. Scenes where your protagonist remembers a pleasant time from her youth (with lots of description) when the main story is a mystery are to be heavily considered for the chopping block. If your writing does not create conflict (and also create meaningful conflict) chop and reread. Also, when searching for scenes that sag, look for the dreaded flashback.

3.    Your protagonist is vague:
Hard to believe that this wonderful character you have created is, well, kind of blah and hard to fathom for others. She’s not nuanced, has no real physical characteristics, no sharp inner turmoil (wound) that drives her to seek justice. Why is that—especially when your secondary characters might be the opposite? Because as authors we tend to live in our protagonist’s head. We know exactly what she is thinking, feeling, and about to do next. It’s painfully obvious—to us. It’s so obvious we don’t even put it down on the page. Maybe we should.

viva los escritores!


Promoting Your Indie Book: 13+1 Things You Might Want To Know

Promoting Your Indie Book: 13+1 Things You Might Want to Know

Last year, when I began promoting SENDERO, I read a terrific piece on what steps to take or, more importantly, what to expect as an Indie author starting out on the road to getting my book in the hands and on the e-readers of others. I WISH I had kept that link because the author had some wonderful insights. (So if you think you’re out there and reading this, please ping me and I’ll display your link in all its glory.)

Here then is my own list of rules, some seeded from that piece, some from others, plus my own observations. Much of this is common knowledge amongst Indie authors but it may help newcomers and possibly amuse you. And it will probably change in six months. Viva los escritores!

1. Talk it up. Not easy. Most writers are introverts who sit in dark little rooms and bang out unpublishable prose*. We are, by nature, introverted and modest. Now some writers should be modest. But not you. You wrote a book the world needs to know about. So tell people. If not you, then who? Carry business cards promoting your book in your wallet or, if you prefer, purse. I prefer a wallet. Hand out cards when you talk about your book. What—you don’t have business cards promoting your book? Automatic disqualification. See the business card step. For authors who have a physical book, keep a box of books in the trunk of your car (this tip from JA Konrath.) Sell them cheap, at cost, give them out (to the right people).

2. Try everything (within reason and the confines of the law and it doesn’t involve spending a load of money on web advertising). More than one reader thought Penelope Cruz should play Nina Flores, the protagonist of SENDERO, in the motion picture. I found Ms. Cruz’s US agent and sent him a copy of my book, suggesting she might consider it. This is an example of trying everything. I’m still waiting to hear back, BTW.

3. The steps you take that you are absolutely sure will pay off will OFTEN not pay off. So you thought all your family and friends were going to go wild when you released the efforts of your life’s ambition and help you out by buying your book and talking it up to everyone they know. Some will. But many won’t, including family and close friends. This hurts. They are bad. They keep saying they are going to buy your book (if someone says this more than once, don’t waste any more time on them and don’t buy Girl Scout cookies next time their kid comes around). Some will tell you they always wanted to write a book and will tell you all about it and want to know who to contact. Some will tell you they bought your book but didn’t buy it. Ask them what they thought of the ending. “Oh, I haven’t actually started it yet.” Some will ask you for a freebie or want to borrow a copy. You learn who your friends are, a sad, but necessary by-product of promoting your book. Get over it. And move onto another step that MIGHT sell your book.

4. The steps you take that you least expect to pay off will sometimes pay off. I went to dinner at a neighbor’s house when I first released SENDERO. I am a software developer by day and so is my neighbor. I fully expected an evening of unbridled geekery discussing hash table search algorithms but beforehand I dutifully handed out my business card (note: I had business cards in my wallet) promoting the novel because that is what I was told to do. “I wrote a novel,” I said meekly. To my surprise, my neighbor, who never reads anything other than programming manuals and sci-fi, invested 99 cents and downloaded my thriller to his PC using Kindle software. And he liked it. And he told people. He blogged it. Promoted it on the neighborhood web site, generating much chatter and quite a few sales. Who woulda thunk? So try everything, at least once (again, within reason and the confines of the law and it doesn’t involve spending a load of money on web advertising).

5. The green-eyed monster. Those fellow writers you’ve been networking with and work-shopping with? The same ones who told you (but not others) how great your work is? You’ve read their rough drafts and gone to their readings and book-signings. Now they are remarkably silent when you’ve got a book to promote. They don’t tell their friends, mention it on their Facebook pages, call their agent, twitter, blog, send smoke signals, nothing—even if you ask them to (and you shouldn’t have to—they know how it works). But you did ask them because you are ‘talking it up’ and ‘trying everything’. The same people still have 90 illegible pages they’d like you to critique for them. Or hand you a business card for their book when it comes out. It’s an eye-opener. Don’t burn their houses down. But don’t waste any more time on them. As they say in AA, ‘stick with the winners’. Move on to people who are cool and deserving of your friendship. And keep doing things that MIGHT yield results.

6. Promote others. No one is asking you to promote crap. But if you see good work from your peers, say so, and tell others. They deserve it and someone MIGHT do the same for you.

7. The people who buy your book and help promote you are special people. Thank them. Help them in their endeavors. If they write, buy their books. Write reviews of their books.

8. Avoid expensive web advertising. The few sales it generates won’t warrant the money you spend (and it can be a LOT of money). SENDERO received a starred Kirkus review. Wahoo, I thought: I’ll just sit back and wait for the flood of Amazon orders once the review goes live on the Kirkus web site. I got a few (and I mean FEW) sales out of it. Spending five thousand dollars on a custom Kirkus advertising campaign targeting book industry people would have been insanity. I could send each one of those people a copy of SENDERO for a few hundred. Web ads rarely return their investment.

9. Business cards. Bookmarks don’t work. No one uses them. If you’re selling an eBook, even more so. Those snazzy postcards you see cost way too much and get tossed. Business cards are affordable, fit in your wallet or purse, and fit nicely in other people’s wallets and purses. There are plenty of online business card sites. Use an eye-catching pic of your cover (make sure you spend time and money on the cover), with a catch line, and a link your blog. (What? No blog? Easily remedied.) Hand out your business cards when you talk about your novel and put them in your correspondence (Christmas cards) and the covers of your book when you have a physical book to sell so that the person who bought your book can give them to the next person who will buy your book when he/she hears how great your book is.

10. Social networking. Yes, yes, get on Facebook, create an author page, blog, twitter, use a mainframe, but you know what? There’s a lot of noise out there. And it’s getting worse. A LOT of people are plugging their book while you try to plug yours. Do you really want to sit through someone’s ‘interview’ or read some canned blurb? Neither do I. It’s just plain sad, not to mention, ineffective. Blogs. Get one. There are plenty of freebies. I like wordpress. Put stuff not always about your book on your blog. Link to stuff you like (like my book—IF you like it). Promote people who deserve to be promoted. But don’t think any of this is going to sell a lot of your books. Do it but don’t overdo it. Get out to readings and open mikes. You also need time to write your next book. And you need to get past the other authors, multiplying like rabbits, and out to the READERS. If you crack this last step, please let me know how you did it.

11. Promote but don’t constantly bleat on about your book. There is the 1/5 rule (1 self-promotion for every 4 ‘fun’ posts) but that feels kind of arbitrary to me. If you’ve got something new to say about your book, say it, but find other things to say too. Books your colleagues wrote. Interesting articles about writing. Jokes. Whatever. People don’t want to just hear about your book. They don’t want to buy life insurance from you either.

12. Money. If you thought you were going to make money, then I just feel sorry for you. Maybe you will eventually—maybe—but for now, if you sold some books, particularly to strangers, then you scored a tremendous victory as an Indie author. Someone actually invested in your story about people who never really existed doing things that never really happened. How cool is that?

13. Email signature. Put a simple catchy hook to your book in your email signature. Stick your blog address in there or the link to your trailer (trailer optional—one of the things you might try but don’t spend too much).

14. Write a good—or great—book. Pretty obvious but it should be the first step really. Is your book properly edited? Formatted? Is the cover eye-catching? There is a LOT of competition out there—by some accounts up to 150 indie books are being released PER DAY. Why should people pay money and invest precious time in your creation?

* Unpublishable prose: I’m sorry if you thought I meant your prose was unpublishable. But most of it is. Do you know how many hours of jamming it took for the Stones to come up with the riff for ‘Paint It Black’? I don’t either but it was a lot: many, many hours for that one little gem. That’s why the Stones used to be one of the greatest bands in the world. In the early days the Stones lived and breathed their music and boiled months of sweat down to three minutes. But I digress. I have one five-page short story that came out of a 300 page novel. The other 295 pages sit on my hard drive, where they deserve to be. The short story is the riff that was worth saving (maybe).


Today’s writing tip: simple is frequently better

Kurt Vonnegut is but one example:

“In the mid-1950s, Vonnegut worked very briefly for Sports Illustrated magazine, where he was assigned to write a piece on a racehorse that had jumped a fence and attempted to run away. After staring at the blank piece of paper on his typewriter all morning, he typed, “The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” and left.