How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step Three

Bored Woman with Books 3

This is the last in a three-part series on better writing. In Part One, I covered prologues and why I don’t like them. You can find that here. In Part Two, I delved into what I like to call “dithering,” or boring the reader to death before you can get to the frickin’ point. Click here to find out what I’m talking about. In this final installment, I want to cover something that, as least in my reading experience, is rare. Nevertheless, I think for the reader it’s a turn-off. Here we go.

Abandoning Your Protagonist
This one is a doozy and something that’s still hard for me to get my head around. I started reading a thriller that has received a number of excellent reviews on Amazon. For around the first third of the book, the author had me hooked. The protagonist—a woman—narrates the story which, layer by layer, leads the reader into a world of suburban madness and revenge. At times, I found myself marveling at the phrasing and keen sense of timing. Each character was well drawn and possessed a unique voice. And the narrator’s observations—wickedly funny!

Then, for no reason whatsoever, the author decides to abandon the protagonist, rewinding everything back to the beginning and picking up the story from some new character’s POV. Of course, I guessed that the two story lines would inevitably collide. But, to be honest, I didn’t stick around to find out. If this book hadn’t been sitting on my Kindle, I would’ve flung it against the wall in disgust. Needless to say, I was disappointed. So, what exactly did the author do wrong? Simple. He took me out of the world he’d created for my pleasure and sent me to jail (do not pass Go). He ruined the ride by making me get off in the middle and board a different ride. Here’s what I mean.

You’re watching the classic movie Blade Runner. From the opening shot, you’re hooked as Deckard is unwillingly drawn into a hunt for missing replicants who have already committed murder. Then, just as things are getting good, the director brings everything to a halt, and we go back to the beginning so we can follow Rachael and learn what she’s been up to while Deckard is running around the wet streets of Los Angeles with that fancy gun of his. Now, be honest. Even if you did decide to stay and finish your popcorn, wouldn’t it be jarring to be suddenly taken out of the story like that? Sure, it would.

What should the author have done? Well, if it were me, I would swtich POVs in alternating chapters. Take a look at these excerpts from the excellent thriller Little White Lies by Elizabeth McGregor. She weaves a hypnotic tale of deceit and betrayal involving several characters. Here is Beth, the wife of a man who has apparently committed suicide:

She glanced at him. He had expected to see a difference in her face: sadness, grief, tears. But there was nothing at all. She wore the usual slightly preoccupied look that she had when weighing up a garden, calculating in her head. Beth was nothing if not capable, but he was surprised to see any strength now.

‘Alan,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry about this. I know you’re busy.’

‘Christ! That doesn’t matter.’

‘Is it archaeological, then?’

‘What?’

‘The body. Is it recent, or what?’

‘Beth… Look, why don’t you come in?’

She smiled a little. ‘They all want me to come inside,’ she remarked.

 

Now, here’s Julia, a neighbor of Beth’s whose daughter, Rosie, is chronically ill for some reason:

‘Mummy,’ Rosie called from the back seat of the car. ‘Stop.’

Julia Woods glanced in the rear-view mirror. She was driving at fifty along the back farm road to the village. She hardly heard what her daughter was saying.

‘Mum-mee.’

‘What is it?’

‘You mustn’t do that.’

A junction was approaching; Julia changed gear, and then realised what Rosie was talking about. She was going too fast. The car slewed slightly to one side, and clipped the uncut verge.

‘All right. We’re going slow. See? Very slow.’

 

I realize it’s hard to talk about structure by using a couple of small excerpts. My point is, you’ve got two women in crisis, plus a few other characters who seem to be broken. And the author is able to tell each’s story beautifully in a single hypnotic work.

Recently, I read and reviewed The Last Victim, a first-rate thriller by the immensely talented Jordan Dane. Like Elizabeth McGregor, this author does an excellent job of moving the story forward, alternating between the POV of the FBI profiler, Ryker Townsend, and the serial killer he is pursuing.

For Readers. Which do you prefer—stories told from one person’s POV or from several?

For Authors. How have you solved storytelling problems when dealing with multiple POVs?

Related Posts
How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step One
How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step Two

How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step Two

Bored Woman with Books 2

In the first post in this series, I talked about prologues and why I feel they are no longer relevant to good storytelling. You can check that one out here. Now, except for the occasional literary fiction classic, I like to devote my reading time to indie authors. In this installment, I want to talk about a more pervasive problem—and one that is pretty easy to avoid. It happens when the author thinks they need to wait to get to the good stuff. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Dithering
Recently, I started a book—a ghost story—and I have to tell you, I was bored out of my skull. I think I got less than twenty pages in and finally had to stop. I just couldn’t take any more. To make matters worse, the novel in question begins with a prologue that could have easily been replaced by good backstory! Frankly, that should have been the tipoff. If you really want to lose readers, be sure to write pages and pages of well-constructed, correctly spelled prose that features characters who all sound the same and where nothing happens. It’s what I like to call “dithering.” And in this case, it was almost as if the author was afraid to bring in the paranormal and instead decided to dissect the daily lives of the boring protagonist and his boring wife. Boring, I tell you!

So, what should the author have done instead? Well, if you’re going to write about ghosts, then begin by scaring the pee out of your audience from the get-go. Same with thrillers. You must grab the poor unsuspecting reader by the throat and refuse to let go until the book is finished. Sounds harsh, I know. But I believe in tough love when it comes to writing this kind of stuff. If you don’t know how to get started, try an exercise. Take your boring married couple and pretend they are serial killers. What would they talk about at the breakfast table? What were they doing last night? What are they keeping in the garage? You get the picture.

Here is an excerpt from Stephen King’s iconic ghost story, The Shining, where Jack Torrance is interviewing for the job of caretaker of The Overlook Hotel. Notice that King can’t wait to reveal the horrors lurking in the hotel’s murky history as Ullman explains what the previous caretaker did:

“I suspect that what happened came as a result of too much cheap whiskey, of which Grady had laid in a generous supply, unbeknownst to me, and a curious condition which the old-timers call cabin fever. Do you know the term?” Ullman offered a patronizing little smile, ready to explain as soon as Jack admitted his ignorance, and Jack was happy to respond quickly and crisply.

“It’s a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time. The feeling of claustrophobia is externalized as dislike for the people you happen to be shut in with. In extreme cases it can result in hallucinations and violence—murder has been done over such minor things as a burned meal or an argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes.”

Ullman looked rather nonplussed, which did Jack a world of good. He decided to press a little further, but silently promised Wendy he would stay cool.

“I suspect you did make a mistake at that. Did he hurt them?”

“He killed them, Mr. Torrance, and then committed suicide. He murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way. His leg was broken. Undoubtedly so drunk he fell downstairs.”

 

And that’s from Chapter One! Talk about setting the stage for the savagery to come. The point is, don’t wait to get to the good stuff. In medias res, people! It’s why the reader bought your book in the first place. Also, think about this. Readers can preview your book by reading the first ten percent or so for free. Why in the world would you risk boring them right out of the gate? Next time, we conclude our series with something strange. See you then.

For Readers. What are some things authors do that bore you?

For Authors. Do you have a favorite technique for punching up a boring scene?

Related Posts
How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step One
How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step Three

How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step One

[Bored Woman with Books 1]

I’ve been doing lots of reading lately. Of course, you would expect that since I write books! Anyway, I’ve noticed some things other indie authors do sometimes that drive me nuts. If you’re looking for me to name names, forget it. Professional courtesy and all. What I plan to focus on over the next three posts is what I have observed and what you, being the brilliant writer you are, can do to avoid falling into these habits.

First, I want to frame things up. I’m not talking about an overreliance on adverbs. Yes, we all know Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with them. Use them. Don’t use them. Whatever. Second, regarding hiring an editor. If you’re not doing that, then I suggest you get out of the business. Amazon already offers plenty of self-edited books, and frankly, it doesn’t need any more. Same thing for covers. Hire a professional whydon’tcha. Okay, let’s begin.

Prologues
The word prologue comes from the ancient Greek word prólogos. This form was very popular in Greek drama. Merriam-Webster provides two definitions as they relate to literary works. Here is the second, which I think most authors actually intend when they include one in their book: an introductory or preceding event or development.

So, here’s my take. Unless you are planning to rewrite Canterbury Tales, do not use this outdated literary form. In the 21st century, prologues are often used to address backstory. And that is a mistake, in my view. Here’s an analogy. I’ve heard a lot about this amazing new steakhouse. Spendy, but worth every penny, my friends tell me. So, I decide to see for myself and book a reservation.

After I am seated, I peruse the menu and order the best steak in the house. When it arrives, I can see it sizzling on the plate, the red juices seeping out from underneath. The server places it in front of me and, just as I am about to cut into it and enjoy that first tasty bite, he grabs my hand. Then, he begins telling me about the cow, how it was raised, and that time the tipsy cattle farmer got a little too aggressive with the branding iron, which explains why there is a noticeable dent along the edge.

Of course, there are always exceptions. I am currently reading the fortieth anniversary edition of The Exorcist. And yes, there is a prologue. But in this case, I feel it’s warranted. The author, William Peter Blatty, uses it to set the stage for all the bad things to come. He also introduces a major character, Fr. Merrin, who will eventually fight the demon that is possessing Regan. Now, the author could have chosen to include Fr. Merrin’s backstory later. But starting the book in Iraq, where the priest physically confronts a terrifying statue of that same demon, he’s letting us know that not only is evil real but it’s ancient. Check this out:

The man in khaki prowled the ruins. The Temple of Nabu. The Temple of Ishtar. He sifted vibrations. At the palace of Ashurbanipal he stopped and looked up at a limestone statue hulking in situ. Ragged wings and taloned feet. A bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu.

Abruptly the man in khaki sagged.

He bowed his head.

He knew.

It was coming.

 

If you’re going to employ a prologue, then use it as God intended. Generally, I would stay away from them, though. Instead, weave your backstory as you go, letting the reader uncover new connections along the way. This makes for a much more satisfying read. Reading is all about discovery, and it’s okay if we don’t know a character’s history up front. We are willing to trust that the author will reveal all in good time. Next up, we look at dithering. Don’t worry, you’ll see what I mean.

For Readers. Have you come across books where you felt the prologue was actually helpful?

For Authors. Have you found yourself using a prologue because you felt there was no better way to tell your story?

Related Posts
How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step Two
How to Lose Readers in Three Easy Steps—Step Three

How to Train Your Inner Critic

Ray Liotta
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I used to ride horses. I know, right? Let me just say that these creatures are beautiful. And when the horse and rider are one, the experience can be magical. But horses are also dumb—and incredibly powerful. Not a great combination, if you ask me. If a horse doesn’t want you on its back, it will throw you. And there is nothing you can do about it. Ask a rodeo cowboy. We’re talking half a ton of raw animal power, people. Oh, and they bite, too. But—and I can only vouch for English riding—show a horse a thirty-inch riding crop, and things can change for the better. You don’t even have to use it—just let them see it out of the corner of their eye.

Lately, I’ve been reading posts by other writers moaning about their inner critics. You know what I’m talking about. The inner critic is that nagging little macher who’s always in your face whenever you try putting pen to paper (not to be confused with one’s Muse). And, as far as I know, it doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are. Mine is a guy, is shorter than me, and resembles Ray Liotta, for some reason. Though he smells like hand sanitizer, I gotta give it to him—he dresses well. Now, I have never met Ray Liotta, so rather than besmirch his good name, I’ll call the bane of my existence “Stan.”

The Prick Who Came to Dinner
Stan is not the kind of person who values relationships, so obviously, he’s single. He’s been known to vanish for most of the day—I have no idea where he goes. Maybe he’s torturing some other poor schmuck. Which makes me wonder. Does he talk about me? Never mind. Stan has an uncanny ear, and as soon as he hears me typing on my laptop, he’s in the room, standing directly behind me. Breathing through his nose. Watching every letter that appears on the screen. Well, that’s how things used to be, anyway. Sound familiar?

If he gets the chance, Stan will tell me what I am writing is crap and should be burned. He wonders aloud how I’ve managed to have any success at all as a writer and suggests I look into selling insurance. He enjoys laughing at my analogies, similes, and metaphors, and bawls comically whenever I attempt to craft a tender scene. In short, he’s merciless. Now at this point, I’ll bet you think I hate Stan, right? Well, I don’t. Because as annoying as he is, he’s smart—really smart. Okay, he’ll never invent time travel. But he knows a lousy sentence when he reads one.

Stan, ladies and gentlemen, is my inner critic, and I need him. There, I said it. But here’s the thing: I need him on my terms, not his. If it were up to him, I would never write another word. “The world will thank you,” he told me one time, leaving a trail of pistachio nut shells on the shag carpet. But I’m not listening. A long time ago, I decided to train him. Just like a horse. And although he doesn’t always behave, things have gotten way better.

Now, there are writers out there far more qualified than me to explain the phases of writing in a way that makes sense. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go.

Writing Process

Dreams and Nightmares
An idea comes to me, and I jot it down in my Big Book of Ideas. This can happen when I overhear a piece of a conversation or in the middle of the night when I’m trying to fall asleep. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it. Most of the time, the idea just sits in that book, collecting dust like a lonely little toy no one wants to play with. Sometimes, I incorporate it into something else. And on rare occasions, it becomes a short story or even a novel. I do not control this process—it just happens. And as I record it, Stan is nowhere in sight.

The Dreaded First Draft
This is where I sit down to the blank page. Or, in my case, the blank screen. By the way, this stage applies to short or long fiction. I’m a pantser, so I have only the vaguest notion of how to write this thing. I have a protagonist and, if I’m lucky, an antagonist. But other characters come into the picture as I go. The minute I start writing, Stan waltzes into the room, ready to tear me a new one. But before he can take his place behind my chair, I show him the riding crop. His eyes get huge, and he slinks away, muttering something like “Just for that, I’m eating all the Häagen-Dazs.” But don’t be fooled. He’ll continue trying to get back into the room, usually pretending to be the cable guy. My job is to keep him out until I finish the day’s writing. And let me tell you, it’s exhausting.

The Baby Edit
This happens the next day. I read what I’ve written and invite Stan to join me. That’s right. This pomaded idiot is like a kid in a candy store as he goes to work, pointing out lame construction and tired clichés. After allowing him to eviscerate me, I kick him out and proceed with the next day’s writing.

Keep in mind these last two phases continue until I finish the book or story. Sometimes, I get stuck and work on a different project. Currently, I have at least three unfinished novels kicking around. I’m pretty sure I will finish them. But even if I don’t, others will take their place.

The Mother of All Edits
This is where I edit the entire manuscript, with Stan at my side. I leave the crop on the desk so he can see it, in case he gets any ideas. Usually, he keeps his snarky comments to himself and provides useful suggestions on how to improve what I’ve written. This process takes days, and when I am finished, I set the work aside. I may go through this stage half a dozen times over the course of months. When I am absolutely sure the thing is perfect (nothing is perfect, but you know what I mean), I send the book off to my editor.

Wrapping Up
So, there you have it. Every writer approaches the process differently. No matter how you write, though, there is one thing I would advise. Never mix writing and editing. That’s like inviting Stan to sit down. And you don’t want that, trust me. For one thing, he’s never had an original idea in his life. Also, writing is miserable enough without saddling yourself with a banshee screaming in your ear over every ill-chosen bon mot. Not to mention those pesky adverbs. Anyway, enough. I’d love to hear how you deal with your inner critic. Why not post a comment? In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote.

You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished. ― Will Self

What Writers Can Learn from “Pork and Beans”

[Pork and Beans]
Photo courtesy of Eli Duke

Talk about fortunate! My friend Jordan Dane,  who recently did a guest post on this blog, gave me a slot over at The Kill Zone, where only the coolest authors hang out. Happy reading…

I first heard Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” when my younger daughter was teaching herself the bass. She would blast it every day, following along on her instrument. Eventually, I found myself listening to the lyrics. I came to love that song and now have it on my phone. Yeah, I know. Talk about late to the party. Well, in my defense, I mostly listen to straight-ahead jazz, so. But enough about Weezer…

Trying Not to Be a Pompous Ass
As a writer, I can really identify with those lyrics. I won’t quote them here, but you can use this link if you want to refresh your memory. The point is, the books I choose to write are a product of my, shall we call it, pork-and-beans attitude. I really don’t give a crap about researching popular genres and writing the kinds of books I think people might like. I notice a lot of “experts” like to give that kind of advice to non-fiction authors. To me, that’s right up there with “write what you know.” Spare me. Now, on the surface, I might sound a little pompous. But stick with me for a sec. I am simply trying to stay true to myself. You know, like Lady Gaga.

I watched a lot of movies and television as a kid. My favorites were horror, sci-fi, and comedy. As I grew older, I came to appreciate thrillers. And in the last few years, I fell in love with Westerns. I guess I can thank Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood for that. I also love foreign films—especially those from Japan and Korea. As you can see, my tastes tend to run the gamut. I do lean toward horror, though. In fact, my first four books revolve around zombies and demons.

To read the rest of this article, please visit The Kill Zone.

Better Writing Through Reading and Research

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more. Mostly, I stick to contemporary fiction—especially in the genres I write in. This helps me in two ways. First, I get a look at the competition. And second, I see what’s hot and what’s not as far as reader tastes go. But there’s another benefit and, depending on what you buy, you can take advantage of another writer’s research.

But wait, you say. I thought writers just make crap up and hope they can fool you. Well, that’s true—for bad writers. Good ones take the time to learn about the world they are constructing and endow their stories with a rich undertone that immerses the protagonist—and the reader. Here’s an example. I just finished a novel about a journalist who gets caught up in a conspiracy that involves soulless corporate giants and an assassin with a love of greasy food. To be honest, the book isn’t great. Though the story is well constructed, I felt the principal characters lacked believability. In other words, they just didn’t ring true. Nevertheless, I am so glad I read the book. Here’s why.

The Only Source of Knowledge Is Experience
Einstein said that, and I happen to agree wholeheartedly. The author of the book in question is a former journalist and, when it comes to dogged reporters on a beat, he knows what he’s talking about. I really enjoyed learning about the mindset of the journalist, as well as hearing the faint praise and jeering commentary about the profession as a whole. The author has also peppered the story with discussions of the power of big media and print vs. online. I’m not saying that after reading the book I could go off and write my own novel about a journalist/detective. But I could certainly create a secondary character who’s a journalist and make them sound authentic. Experience counts.

Reading for Pleasure and Learning
When I was a kid, I always compartmentalized my reading. There were books I read to learn and those I devoured for pleasure. But it was rare that a book served both ends. I say nuts to that! Providing you pick good material, every book can be a learning experience. Often when I read, I like to pore over the language. This is what helps me to write better. But I am also aware of the setting and the jargon a character uses. Recently, I reviewed a horror collection. There was one, in particular, I fell in love with—“The Corpse King” by Tim Curran. Now, I could be wrong, but I am of the opinion that the author researched the hell out of the period and in particular about how resurrectionists plied their trade. This is an excellent example of a story that is pleasurable to read and teaches you something in the bargain.

Apply Your Knowledge
I’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about the demonic and possession. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I do bring that background to the stories I write. The last thing I want is for someone in the know to read my work and dismiss it as uninformed drivel. And this is apart from the writing. Readers either like my work, or they don’t. I just don’t want to be accused of ignorance when I could have just as easily researched before I wrote. And neither should you! Remember, writing isn’t just about the words—it’s about what’s behind them. Have fun.

Pulp or Poet?

[Size Mismatch]
Photo courtesy of Miguel Castaneda
via Creative Commons

A writer’s life is nothing, if not angst-filled. Each day, we struggle with dilemmas—most of our own making and many imagined. As for me, I like to battle my demons in private. The best course, I feel, is to put that kind of drama into my writing and let my characters live in Hell. But, frankly, I just can’t take it anymore, and I need to spill. So please, bear with me.

I’ve been writing for more years than I care to admit. In my twenties, I devoted my energy to screenwriting. Great idea, jefe. Get to the end of the line behind the thousands in LA already slaving away at what they hope will become the next ‘Captain America.’ Though I did manage to sell one screenplay and see it made into a movie, I never really enjoyed the success I was hoping for.

When indie publishing came along—mostly thanks to Amazon—everything changed for me, as it did for many other aspiring authors. For years, I had been amassing ideas for novel-length books, and the only thing stopping me from ordering my sport coat with the suede elbow patches was the terrifying thought of trying to secure a literary agent. Weak, I know. But enough about that.

My Eternal Dilemma
I’ve always aspired to write well—as opposed to banging stuff out fast for the money. And, believe me, if you’ve ever downloaded free books to your Kindle, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of crap out there—a lot. And what frustrates me is the fact that this drivel sells—way better than anything I have written. Which brings me to my current dilemma—am I a poet who wants only to create beautiful things (that don’t sell), or a successful pulp writer who’s in it for the money?

My personal belief as to why a lot of indie books sell has nothing to do with quality. Sure, they have to have some semblance of plot and structure. Of course, the cover shouldn’t make you puke. And the formatting has to be at least good enough for you to be able to read the thing without getting vertigo. But what these books have going for them, I feel, is that they are catering to a successful genre. Like Romance.

Now, before you get all huffy and threaten to take my lunch money, let me explain. I am not trying to say anything bad about Romance writers. In fact, sometimes I wish I were one so I could sell more books. What I am saying is, must I write in genres that sell, rather than what I am interested in? It’s a great question.

Romance Rules
So, why did I pick on the Romance category? Take a look at the May 2016 Author Earnings report, which you can find here. This is what they say about indie author earnings (bold text is mine):

Turns out there were 43 [invisible authors] lurking unseen in the dark spaces between Amazon’s bestseller lists, including one author invisibly earning more than $250,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, 30 of the 43 invisible six-figure earners — including the top earner — were self-published indie authors. Most were writing in the Romance Fiction genres, but there was also an indie author of editor’s-choice Cozy Mystery Fiction, and even more surprising, a traditional-award-winning indie writer of Literary Fiction. We happen to think that’s pretty cool.

Cool, indeed. I have a number of writer friends—many of whom publish Historical Romance, Regency Romance, Contemporary and New Adult Romance. It’s my sense that they are doing pretty well. But here’s the thing—from what I can tell, they actually enjoy writing Romance. So for them, this is the best of all worlds.

A Genre Comparison
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would like to provide an illustration of what I am talking about. The following excerpt is from my horror thriller novel, Even The Dead Will Bleed: Book Three of Tell Me When I’m Dead. Notice that the writing is purposeful and dark—just the thing for pulp fiction:

The girl was pretty with long, light brown hair and frightened blue-grey eyes that were almond-shaped—slightly Asian—and ringed with dark circles. Her full lips were pink and moist, her skin fair and blemish free. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty. I looked at the back of her hand and noticed a red needle mark—probably from an IV.

“Are you in danger?” I said.

Still nothing. I glanced left and right to see who might be watching. Then I released her arm and took a step back, my open hands away from my pockets. I thought she would bolt, but she stood there unsure, looking at her bare feet, which were dirty. Her shoulders jerked up and down and I realized that she was crying. I remembered what Becky had said when the alarm went off—someone’s escaped.

I wasn’t sure what to do. She must’ve broken out of Hellborn, and now they were looking for her. I didn’t want to leave her there—not like this. She needed help. But I didn’t want to get mixed up with a kid. Griffin, the girl Holly and I had rescued in Tres Marias, had turned out well—and I thanked God for her—but I needed to be alone to complete my mission.

“I’m Dave,” I said. “What’s your name?”

She looked at me steadily. I didn’t know what new hell I was signing up for. It was pretty obvious that it would involve more than slipping her twenty bucks and wishing her good luck. When she spoke my blood went cold.

“Don’t let them find me!” she said.

 

Here is another excerpt—this time from my latest, unpublished Young Adult novel, Chainsaw Honeymoon: A Ruby Navarro Disaster. Not to brag, but this might even border on the literary. See if you agree:

A loud yawn startled me. It was Dad. How long had he been standing there?

“Come on, Rube, it’s late,” he said.

And by the way, when did he get all parental? Mom must’ve had a talk with him.

“No-uh,” I said. “I need to figure out this sequence.”

Between you and me, I was struggling to keep my eyes open.

Gently, he closed the laptop and guided me to my bed. As I dug through the duffel bag for my pajamas, I felt something foreign. Removing my hand, I saw Mr. Shivers. How had he gotten in there again? I thought I’d left him in the closet back home. Too exhausted to care, I tossed him into a chair, where he landed in a sitting position.

“Tomorrow, I could use your help setting up the Roku,” Dad said.

“Aghh, you’re so pathetic. Fine, I’ll see what I can do.”

I let go of a major yawn. Smiling, he gave me a bear hug, practically squeezing the air out of me.

“Ooh, I thought I heard a fart.”

“Dad, that’s so rude!”

“It used to make you laugh.”

“When I was five.”

“Good night, Rube. Brush your teeth.”

He and Mom had definitely spoken. I wondered vaguely if he was going to go off and practice The Beggar’s Sideshow per Mom’s instructions. Before he left, I broke down and decided to spill. After all, the man deserved to know the truth. I picked Ed up and put him on my lap for moral support.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, baby?”

“She is moving on, you know.”

He was leaning against the doorframe, staring at me intently. I could almost see the man hormones keeping his emotions in check. Barely. His face was a mosaic of disappointment, anger and disbelief. He smiled sadly and, without another word, closed the door behind him. See, this is the difference between women and men. I would be throwing things at this point.

 

The point is, I didn’t research the markets for either of these works—I just sat down and wrote them because I felt like it. We’ll see if the charming and perspicacious Ruby is enough to help me sell some books.

Sage Advice
I am currently reading How to Make a Living as a Writer by the well-respected author and teacher James Scott Bell. His book offers clear, practical advice on how to actually pull off what he promised in the title. One thing he suggests is studying bestselling categories on Amazon and making a conscious decision to master that market, then cranking out your own novels. Here is what he has to say:

I believe a writer should love his genres. But you can learn to love a genre. Sort of like an arranged marriage.

Nicholas Sparks did this with his own career. He went into it like a businessman. He looked at the bestselling genres and discovered that each one had two big names that dominated. At the same time, a surprise book emerged called The Bridges of Madison County. It was a tear-jerking love story written by a male author. And it exploded.

Sparks decided he could be the second name on this unique subset — men who write tear-jerking love stories.

He’s done pretty well.

Now, from a business point of view, he’s absolutely right. But in the words of Jerry Seinfeld when asked to wear the puffy shirt, “But I don’t want to be a pirate!”

If I were more practical, I would begin immediately my own market research and get to writing that puffy shirt book. But to be frank, Romance isn’t really my thing—unless guns or time travel are involved. Besides horror, I am drawn to Thriller, Mystery and YA. Having said that, though, if I follow Mr. Bell’s advice, I am still going to have to research what sells within those categories. And I’m not sure I want to write a political thriller, for example. So, I am almost back where I started.

In On Writing, I seem to recall Stephen King referring to himself as a “journeyman writer.” Here is a guy who consistently cranks out solid work in a genre he loves—and who makes a very good living. But he is practical, too. He knows he is a business. I’m still working on that concept.

What to Do?
As I said, I have a new book coming out, written without the benefit of checking in on bestselling categories. I hope it does well. If it doesn’t, I may decide that my next novel needs to have the word “girl” in the title. It doesn’t take a ton of research to know that those seem to be doing very well lately.

Fiction and Profanity—F-Bombs Away!

[Slim Pickens Riding the Bomb]
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Recently, I reread an autobiographical novel I had written a number of years ago, thinking I could tidy it up for publication. Though I enjoyed much of the writing style, I was horrified at the frequency of f-bombs. Why? Because I don’t write that way anymore. And I couldn’t even defend the use of these words as critical to the genre. This book is essentially a dramedy—Life, Love and the pursuit of sex.

Some time after, I read an interesting post by PJ Parrish, which is a pseudonym for sisters and writing partners Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols (see “Profanity in Crime Fiction: Reality or Lazy Writing?”). In it, they state …

There are different reasons why readers dislike profanity in their fiction. It can [be] colored by religious conviction, personal morals or just plain old taste. Authors are guided by the same impulses. Mark Henshaw, a Mormon crime writer, wrote a blog “Why I Don’t Use Profanity,” saying, “My short answer to the question is: because my mother reads my books. My long answer is a bit more involved.”

A Religious Debate
There are any number of articles and blog posts about whether foul language belongs in good fiction. If you’d like to test that assertion, try a Google search on “fiction and profanity.” According to Montee and Nichols, some authors write blue because they feel it’s required to make their novels realistic. Others, like Mark Henshaw, leave it out because their mothers are reading their books.

Now, I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination. I have been known to let go, using strings of colorful expletives the way Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold. And I don’t happen to think most good writers choose profanity out of laziness either. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to leave that kind of language out of my writing. Not because I feel I am better than everyone else. It’s mainly a marketing decision. In other words, I don’t want to turn off any potential new readers because they can’t get past the swear words.

Being “Authentic”
Not to take sides, but I do want to address the question of authenticity in fiction. Apparently, some authors feel that in order to depict realistic worlds (e.g., war, crime, etc.), they need to use lots of swear words. Well, I don’t think that’s true. If it were, then why isn’t urban crime fiction littered with liberal doses of the N-word? I don’t care how “realistic” you think your fiction is. The fact that you are telling a story means you are creating a world that doesn’t exist. Sure, it can resemble the real world, but in the end, it’s fake. And thank goodness!

Think about it. What if you were to write about real life exactly as it is? Wouldn’t it be kind of, I don’t know, boring? People don’t like to read fiction that depicts real life—they read to escape to a different life. And, yes, you should see things that are familiar. But a good writer is drawing you in with great characters and a powerful made-up story. So, if you agree that this is the case, then who is to say you have to include the f-word just to make things seem real?

Profanity and Violence
Very often, violent stories go hand-in-hand with profanity. Just watch any R-rated action movie. But this is not always the case. Take ‘The Conjuring,’ for example. This film received an R-rating from the MPAA. Why? Because it’s scary and violent. Yet, there is no hardcore swearing anywhere in the movie, according to the parents’ guide. So to those who think you need this kind of language to appear realistic, let me ask you this—What better time to let off a few f-bombs than when your mother is possessed by a demon? Yet, none are found in ‘The Conjuring,’ and the story still works.

Many of you know I wrote the horror thriller series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. At the time, I made a conscious decision not to use certain expletives. Sure, there is some mild cursing but nothing hardcore. And, again, if you’ve read the work, you’ll know that these books are violent as hell. Some may disagree, but I believe I have created a balance that works. In my fictional world, people can find themselves in horrible danger and not swear like merchant marines. And readers can still enjoy a powerful story.

So what are your thoughts?

Getting Away with Murder

[American Psycho Poster]Spoiler Alert!
If you plan on reading the TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD series but haven’t gotten around to it yet, then stop right here! Go ahead—I’ll wait.

Okay, you know the title of this post is total clickbait, right? Admit it, though. It got your attention. Anyway, I want to talk about killing someone and actually getting away with it. Before you call 911, let me explain. I am a writer and I create characters. Many times the characters are expendable—bad guys, helpless bystanders … But sometimes I am forced to grapple with killing off a character who is not only central to the story but beloved.

This is what happened when writing my horror thriller trilogy TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD.

Plotters and Pantsers
Before I go any further, I must tell you there are two kinds of writers—plotters and pantsers. Plotters like to create vast, detailed-filled outlines before writing a single word of their novel. When they are finished, they know exactly where they are going and how they will get there. Good for them. I hate plotters. Which brings me to pantsers …

We pantsers like to fly by the seat of our pants. We have only the vaguest notion of where we are going, and we have no frickin’ idea how we will get there. Welcome to my world, by the way.

Pantsers manage to move the story along through intuition and serendipity. When we are inspired, we happily travel in a westerly direction. When we are stuck, we curse and throw things and gain fifteen pounds. But here’s the dirty little secret—and it’s why no one in the history of writing has ever proven once and for all that plotters are better at writing than pantsers, or vice versa. Why?

Because we all end up in the same place.

Now, you could argue that plotters write faster because they already have the story down pat. But that’s not entirely true, since they must spend a fair amount of time creating their outline—a step pantsers like me happily skip.

So what does all this have to do with murder?

Death in Venice
I made the decision to kill off a main character in Book Two. And I did it after discovering she needed to be dead in order for the protagonist Dave Pulaski to fulfill his destiny in Book Three. For those of you who read Books One and Two, you’ll know I’m talking about Dave’s wife, Holly. And this was no easy task. Here’s the pivotal scene …

Holly stood there on the platform, paralyzed. Her slender body trembled. She couldn’t even cry. Next to her, Griffin and Fabian stood mutely, his fingers reaching for her hand and gripping it. I wanted to will myself to Holly’s side and made a move to reach her. The cop standing next to O’Brien pointed his rifle at my head. Warnick gripped my shoulder. Balls of red light streaked across my eyes. My heart raced. I wanted to rip out the throats of everyone who meant to harm my family.

“You took away everything from me!” the mayor said. “My wife, my sons … my future!”

“We didn’t kill your family,” Warnick said. “Someone attacked our convoy.”

The mayor let out a pitiful wail that echoed throughout the cavern. O’Brien eyed him uncomfortably. His voice softer, he said, “If you hadn’t come after me, they’d still be alive.”

Warnick wasn’t finished with him. “Why did you leave them behind? You could have saved them.”

“You don’t understand. This was supposed to be my ticket …” Choking up, he forced himself to go on. “It’s bigger than you can imagine. They got me out of there, they …”

“You abandoned your wife and children,” Warnick said, unafraid.

“They promised me,” the mayor said, weeping.

Overlapping voices echoed in the cavern, and I struggled to make sense of them. Sweat dripped into my eyes, and the vague forms of Holly, Griffin and Fabian wavered in front of me like ghosts in the harsh orange light, pleading with me to do something. I wiped my eyes, and Holly screamed. When I looked up I found her on her knees in front of the mayor.

“Dave!”

The mayor tore the weapon from O’Brien’s hand and pointed it at Holly’s head. My heart thudded—I couldn’t breathe.

“Dave, I love you! I’ll always love you!”

“Please,” I said. “Please don’t.” I wept, unable to control myself. I was completely helpless—at the mercy of a madman. There was nothing I could do.

“I lost everything,” the mayor said, his voice a monotone. “Let me show you what that feels like.”

It was a dream. The bullet—a .45, I think—left the chamber so slowly. I could see it spinning as it raced home to its target. Every thought in my brain vanished, my mind laser-focused on the deadly projectile. And when it struck my wife in the head, exploding out the other side in a burst of blood, brains and bone, I died for a little while. That picture—that memory of Holly—the impact of the bullet twisting her sideways and down into the dirt—that photograph is burned in my memory forever like a cattle brand. And it’s always accompanied by the sound of screaming—Griffin maybe—and Greta’s desperate, urgent barking.

It was a dream—I knew it was. Not real. A nightmare. But if it was, why couldn’t I wake up?

Because it was real. There was no escaping it—not this time. If I’d been holding my weapon I would have used it to join Holly. There wasn’t any point in going on. She was all I had lived for. Nothing else mattered. And the baby. So blessed to be conceived but not to be born. I fell to my knees and could only remain there, sobbing.

I’m sure you’ve heard of writers who weep when their characters die. After I wrote that scene, I cried like a baby. Really. I loved Holly deeply, and I wanted with all my heart to let her live. But she couldn’t. She had to die in order to give Dave the hate he needed to exact his revenge in Book Three.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I wanted you to know that writers do care deeply about our characters. When they suffer, we suffer. And when you think about it, doesn’t that make for a better reading experience?

KU—Taking a Chance on Amazon

Photo Courtesy of Randi Deuro via Creative Commons
[Party Pooper]In my previous post I announced that I planned to make my horror thriller series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD available in Kindle Unlimited. Well, I did it! This means that if you are a subscriber, you can now read all three books as part of your subscription, instead of paying for each one. That and the fact that there are well over a million Kindle titles makes the subscription a pretty good deal. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not here to sell you on Amazon’s subscription model. What I am doing is reaching out to those who already signed up or who have seriously contemplated doing so.

This was not an easy decision for me, because when you enroll your book in KDP Select (the program that enables authors to participate in Kindle Unlimited), you must be exclusive to Amazon. A lot of authors reject this kind of arrangement. They prefer having their books available in multiple distribution channels, hoping to increase sales by reaching readers everywhere, regardless of platform. And who doesn’t want more sales?

Reality 101
A harsh reality in the bookselling business—and one even detractors must accept—is that Amazon is the biggest fish in the pond. They sell more books than anyone else—even Wal-Mart—mostly due to low prices. Take a look at this recent eBook sales chart, courtesy of AuthorEarnings.

[AuthorEarnings Chart]
Overall Market Share of US Ebook Unit Sales Held by Each Retailer
And books aren’t the only category where they win. Take a look at this recent New York Times article where, regarding Wal-Mart, they write, “Amazon’s prices were lower on every item, in some cases substantially ($150 less for the dishwasher, $7 less for the Grisham book).” And what about convenience? Free two-day shipping for Prime customers? Hellz yeah! I never have to set foot in a store.

Now, you can love Amazon or hate them, but that’s the reality I am living in. So why not embrace it?

Free Books!
Here’s another benefit of being in the KDP Select program—I can run free book promotions. Granted, I may only do this for a maximum of five days out of every ninety, but free sometimes is better than free never, I always say. So why not let readers share the good times?

Reaching More Readers
I’ll admit, this is where things get tricky. Just because my books are available to KU subscribers to read “for free” doesn’t mean they will. As I mentioned before, there are well over a million titles to choose from, so how will anyone even discover me, let alone download my books? Well, that’s where some serious marketing comes in.

Nothing Is Forever
So, what if my little experiment doesn’t work out? I can always go back to the way things were—publishing my books at Barnes and Noble, iBookStore and Kobo, as well as at Amazon. The contract period lasts ninety days, and I can always choose not to renew.

For those who are not authors, you are probably wondering how in the world I get paid under this arrangement. Great question! Amazon has come up with a formula based on Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP). Essentially, the more pages of my book readers actually read, the more I get paid. As far as I can tell, Amazon is gaming the system, because there are stats floating around out there demonstrating that just because a person starts your book doesn’t mean they will finish it. Also, if you’re like me, I may have two or three books going at the same time. So I may not finish a particular book for a while. Some authors, like Joe Konrath, insist they are making money with Kindle Unlimited. Of course, I should mention that Joe has a humungous backlist. You can check out his post here.

How long do I plan to try this? Honestly, I have no idea. But, at a minimum, I am in the program for ninety days. Personally, I don’t think that’s enough time to measure success, so I will most likely stay in for at least two rounds. Either way, I will keep you posted. In the meantime, if you are a KU subscriber and you love horror thrillers, check out TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. And don’t forget to read to the end!

[TMWID - 3D Transparent Shadow]