Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Greetings and Other Thoughts

Forgive me if this blog is not about writing. For the first time in many years, all my kids and grandchildren will be together this Christmas at my house. In addition, I am reviewing a great contract offer to publish my book, Maker of Angels. What a wonderful holiday for me and my family.

Despite my good fortune, I can't help but think of the pain suffered by some families this year. What must Christmas be like for those who lost a loved one in the Connecticut school shooting, or the family of my old friend, Alvin Pugh . . . he dropped dead of a massive coronary a few days ago. Two young boys in my town, brothers walking their bikes down the side of the road, were killed by a drunk driver a couple months ago. Even families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year, how do they find peace and happiness this Christmas?

I don't have answers. Wish I did. All I can do is to take a few minutes out of my own happiness, to think about those who are suffering and respect their loss by memorializing the lives of their loved ones. So while I am having the most wonderful holiday season ever, I am trying to think good thoughts for those who have been less fortunate in hope that Karma really exists.

Merry Christmas or Joyous Holidays to everyone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dealing with Disaster

I thought my current manuscript, Maker of Angels, was done when I recently submitted it to two publishers for consideration. I was WRONG!

Not wrong about it being submitted, sure enough, I got it into the hands of decision-makers. What was wrong is that the manuscript is not DONE. After countless edits by me and reviews by six beta readers (including two professionals, two writers, one cowboy and an up-and-coming copy editor), I found a glaring spelling error that none of us caught.


"How could something like this happen?" I thought. "More importantly, what am I going to do about it?"

What's my terrible mistake? I wrote a western romance and failed to spell "corral" correctly. Can you believe such a stupid mistake? Corral, a common western word and I messed it up. Yikes! That word showed up nine times in the whole document, and I spelled it "c o r a l" . . . EVERY STINKING TIME.

I feel like a fool. I even recall questioning that spelling while I was writing and made a mental note to check on it in the first edit. Then, I forgot, not once, but through half a dozen edits.
Should I keep silent? Should I hope it slips past the acquisition editor like it did everyone else? After all, it has already passed more than a dozen eyes without notice?

Honesty is the best policy, or at least, I hope so. Here's what I did. I sent out the corrected manuscript along with a brief note of apology to the editors involved. I'm owning my mistake. Will my faux pas kill my chances for a contract? I hope not, but we'll see. I'll let you know when decisions are made.

I need a Snickers. They make everything better!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Page Turners...Structure, a Secret to Pace

Page turners, those books that readers love, come from balance between four elements:

1. Great plot,
2. Compelling characters,
3. Strong story-telling, and,
4. Writing structure/pace.

This blog discusses number 4, "Writing structure and how it enhances pace."

Consider the following excerpt.

     Footprints showed in the morning dew on my lawn, one set leading to my daughter's window and another back to the sidewalk. She had not been imagining that face several times recently. "I'm sorry, Emma. You're right." I felt terrible for doubting her, much less for telling her so.
     "It's okay, daddy." She took my hand and gave it a forgiving squeeze. Her head tipped to one side coming gently to rest against my arm. What a wonderful child, I thought.
     I called the police and took numerous pictures of the footprints from a distance to preserve evidence in case cops arrived after the dew evaporated.

     Police still had not shown up an hour later, and rising sun made short work of the moisture on the grass. "Honey," I called to my nervous wife on the porch, "call the cops again, and find out how much longer until they get here." She went into the house with an exasperated huff. I was sure they were about to get an earful.
     Police arrived just as she returned, and I quickly explained my concern about the stalker with an obsession toward my daughter. "Officer, kids in the neighborhood call him 'Wacky Willie' because he talks to himself all day long down in the park by the school."

That scene mixes dialog and narrative in larger paragraphs. I see writing like this all the time, occasionally even in New York Times Bestselling novels. Can a writer build strong characterization and tension in this way? Sure, but I believe it could be much better if the dialog and narrative are featured separately.

Narrative is best for building scenes while dialog drives plot and enhances tension. When dialog is buried inside paragraphs that are primarily narrative, it loses some of its impact on readers. It also creates longer paragraphs leaving less "white space" on each page. Empty space helps readers to turn more pages per hour giving an impression of a fast-moving story.

Here is the same excerpt from above restructured to add white space and to isolate dialog for greater impact.

     Footprints showed in the morning dew on my lawn, one set leading to my daughter's window and another back to the sidewalk.
     "I'm sorry, Emma. You're right."
     She had not been imagining that face several times recently. I felt terrible for doubting her, much less for telling her so.
     "It's okay, daddy," Emma said as she took my hand and gave it a forgiving squeeze.

     Her head tipped to one side coming to rest against my arm.
     What a wonderful child, I thought.
     I called the police and took numerous pictures of the footprints from a distance to preserve evidence in case the cops arrived after the dew evaporated. Police still had not shown up an hour later, and rising sun made short work of the moisture on the grass.
     "Honey," I called to my nervous wife on the porch, "call the cops again, and find out how much longer until they get here."
     She went into the house with an exasperated huff. I was sure they were about to get an earful. Police arrived just as she returned.
     "Officer, kids in the neighborhood call him 'Wacky Willie.' He talks to himself all day long down in the park by the school."
     I quickly explained my concern about the stalker with an obsession toward my daughter.

The reconstructed excerpt reads as a fast-paced story. Page after page of easy reading like this makes the reader feel as if the story is a "page turner." Assuming that plot tension, character development and story-telling are good, this last structural adjustment can turn a great story into a word-of-mouth best-seller.

What do you think about separating narrative and dialog?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Rising Tide Theory – Edit or Sink!

President John Kennedy coined the expression, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  He meant that improvements in the economy lifted all citizens, but his concept has wide application. What does this mean to writers?

Rising tide will float all boats
Less than a decade ago, there were no
e-readers, no e-books and no widespread self-publishing. Aspiring authors suffered little possibility of ever seeing their ramblings in published form unless they paid far too much to a vanity press for a garage full of books that would never sell. For most, the dream truly was little more than a fantasy.

Along came internet publishing. E-book readers quickly followed, along with dire projections of the end of traditional publishing. “Bookstores will go bankrupt.” “Mainstream publishers will die on the vine.” “Big name authors will suddenly discover stiff competition for a rapidly dwindling share of the reader market.”

Any town crier in medieval times would be proud of the loud proclamations of doom and gloom.

What really happened?

Some predictions did come to pass. One large bookstore chain, Borders, closed their doors, but it had little to do with growth in self-publishing. They were managed by stupid people who made bad business decisions. "Used book” stores have seen sales dwindle with the advance of e-readers. Many, including my favorite, have closed their doors. New “authors” did indeed explode onto the literary scene in such numbers that most vanished into a cacophony of unknown talking heads. A tiny few soared to great heights on the backs of fiction that went “viral.”

Big publishing houses seemed to ignore the growing changes. They stood in the muddy swamp of traditional literature like dinosaurs casually chewing on literary leaves while staring in mindless wonder at the glowing spot in the sky above, an approaching ten-mile-wide meteor. I suspect they thought all this self-publishing was hoopla, a passing bubble in time that would burst, leaving behind a sticky residue of dwindled hopes and failed dreams. Boy, were they wrong!

Ironically, traditional publishers might just be the big winners in all this literature evolution. “How is that?” you ask.
Will YOUR boat float when the tide hits?
Self-publishing created a vast pool of substandard writing foisted off on the public by catchy graphics and low prices. Took a little while, but readers finally caught on. Even “free” books are not getting the downloads that they once did. Price used to be a major factor in book sales. No longer. Consumers figured out the REAL price of an e-book . . . their own time. Bad writing, poor editing and over-hyped, under-delivered e-books have left them cautious about wasting precious free time on crap. For a dollar or two more, a properly edited, well-written e-book from a publisher with strong writing standards can immerse a reader in a wonderful world of suspended reality.

This is where traditional publishers come back into the picture. Historically, competition among authors, and strict editorial standards, resulted in quality books. Readers could always trust what they were getting. As the newness of the e-book craze matures, demand for superior writing is returning, yes, even for $2 e-books. Prices for electronic downloads dropped so low that the only major decision for a reader now is how to spend their limited pleasure-reading time.

Big-(number of the month) publishers are now aggressively positioning to enter POD and self-publishing markets. Their reasonably priced, strongly edited offerings will capture a large share of the consuming public in the near future. Authors who avail themselves of services by such mainstream companies and smaller publishers that also maintain high expectations will produce the higher standard of books that readers crave. The future belongs to quality . . . sales will follow.

Promotions, professional graphics, direct sales from reputable publishers (eliminating the cost of distribution through Amazon or B&N) are necessary, but, most importantly, writers/authors who are smart enough to invest in high quality editing will thrive. All others will find water spilling into their metaphorical boats as the tide rises.
Leaky boats don't float!
There you have it. Great writing and quality editing is more important than ever. That rising tide WILL, indeed, lift all boats, but only those that are seaworthy. My advice to my fellow writers is simple. Get professional editing . . . the tide's coming, so make sure your boat doesn’t leak!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dink - What’s in a Name?

One of my followers asked about my pups, particularly the one called Dink.

“How did you come up with a name like that?” she asked.

Dink - my writing partner sits
by me on his hassack
Dink was actually a gift to my wife, Sue, on
one of those “special” birthdays. Blond miniature Dachshunds are rare, and his personality dripped with affection. My wife wrestled with names for him until she settled on a tough-guy name, Axel, and planned to get him a collar with bulldog-style pointed studs. Sure, the little guy was hung like a bull, walking bowlegged to deal with his natural endowment, but her macho name for him simply did not fit his diminutive size and gentle character.

He loves everybody.
During my twenty years as a pro bass fisherman, I spent weekends trying to find the biggest fish possible to win as much as $50,000. Small fish annoyed us and got tossed back as “dinks” that wasted our time. I jokingly called Sue’s puppy Dink, because he was so small. His head popped up and ears tilted forward at the first sound of that name. He liked it.
Dink never did answer to that name Sue gave him, but he responded immediately to the derogatory small fish term. It stuck. To this day, his tail wags instantly when he hears his name. More importantly, his sweet disposition never changed. As I type this, I am sitting on my living room couch with Dinkie right beside me. He’s waiting for me to drop my arm enough that he can lunge up to my face and slam his cheek against mine. It’s his way of hugging . . . he can’t get enough. His name definitely fits his temperament.

What’s in a name? Do names carry expectations? Can they convey images to readers?

I think so, but writers need to understand that their personal biases may not be shared by others. If you had an arch nemesis in high school named Buddy, would your life-long distaste for that name carry the same feeling for your readers? Jazmin came to mind for me recently when looking for a special female literary name. My wife liked it, but when I ran it by another friend, she laughed and asked, “Why do you want to use a stripper name?” She even yelled across the room to her husband, asking what he thought of the name. “Stripper!” he yelled back without hesitation.

Would Luke Skywalker have been as compelling if he was named Willy Bangwater? How about Harry Potter? What if he was named after a local pub owner . . . say, Jon Smith?

In my opinion, names will not make or break a character—only the story will do that. But, I do believe carefully selected names enhance a character and make the story more memorable for readers.

That said, do you have a favorite character in literature? If so, how much influence did his or her name have on your impression?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Y'all Come Set a Spell - Accents/Slang

Consider the following excerpt and the questions that I presented to the Chicago Manual of Style online forum for editors:

My uncle grew up in the hills of Arkansas. His regional dialect often forced me to listen intently as if he spoke a foreign language. I struggled to understand him.

"Boy, ain't no self respect’n coon dog gonna run ’way fumma fight wid'a possum. You gotta be quick on the trigga, an’ shoot that critta 'fore yer dog takes a whuppin."

Notice the fragmented words, phonetic spellings and inconsistent punctuation. Readers might struggle with the uncle's speech pattern, yet the writer wants to create an image that requires such deviations from normal English. If readers stumble on passages like this, they may close the book instead of enjoying the unique voice of that character. I posted the following questions to the editors:

1) How should I use the apostrophe in slang words like "respectin"...should it be respectin' or respect'n or no comma at all…respectin? What about blended words like "dont’cha" for don't you? Would you use an apostrophe at the beginning of a word that drops the "h" as in cockney slang..."C'mon mate, 'ave a 'eart. Poor bloke, ‘e got blowed up in the bloody war. Ain’t got no ‘ands.”

2) When using slang or dropping letters to produce accents (like dropping the "g" in words ending in "ing,") how much is enough? Should the character's speech pattern remain constant throughout the manuscript, or is it enough to suggest a speech pattern initially and return to conventional spellings thereafter?

Here is an answer to my questions from a senior editor at a major publishing house:

“Great questions, Dean!

1. I'd use the apostrophe where it's obvious that a letter is missing. It will help readers follow the dialect so they can better understand what the character is saying.

2. If the character switches back and forth from dialect to no dialect with direct quotes, that will be a red flag to readers and confuse them. Does the character actually speak like this or not? I'd maintain consistency with the character's speech pattern, but I'd also limit the direct quotes wherever possible so they don't exhaust readers.

Of course, it all comes down to being a stylistic thing. Creative writing can take whatever direction the author wants it to, including the punctuation (or lack thereof) with dialects. I find dialects that omit letters easier to read when they have apostrophes. Some authors prefer the stark plainness of omitting them. Sometimes the choice depends on the type of dialect, the character, and the overall storyline (and the anticipated audience).”

What about the bible of editing . . . the Chicago Manual of Style? CMOS, section 7.31, discusses such contractions.  Examples they give are:

’tis (not ‘tis)
dos and don’ts
rock ’n’ roll

What do we writers conclude from both the editor’s comments and the formal CMOS discussion/examples?

My conclusion is that CONSISTENCY TRUMPS STYLE.  That said, which of the possible slang-contraction styles would you choose?


Personally, I like the first and third because the apostrophe simplifies the word for the reader. It indicates missing letters and ushers the reader along the without momentary hesitation that might be caused by a reader wondering if the spelling was a typo. More importantly, pick one style and stick with it throughout the manuscript.

There is one exception for me to that self-imposed "rule" on consistency. Endearments. They don't require an apostrophe.

"Darlin, it's real sweet of you, fixin' that broken fan belt, but I'm still not gettin' in bed with you."
What about quantity of colloquial words? How many apostrophe’d words or phonetically written expressions are really needed to get across an accent or colloquial speech pattern? Will too many annoy or distract readers? YES!

In my opinion, the real trick for a writer is to find balance between enough slang to get across the intended mental image but not so much that the reader becomes bored, distracted or annoyed.

Here's my own simple rule. The first time you meet my character you will get full immersion in his or her dialect. Every time thereafter, I limit such words to a maximum of one or two such words per sentence; just enough to keep the special voice of that character consistent but not enough to become frustrating to the reader.
How about you? How do you handle accents and dialect?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jihad: The Breath of God

Status of my current thriller story. It is being reviewed by mainstream publishers, including Random House. I will announce the publication and release dates as soon as I sign a contract. Until then, here's a little tickler about the story.

Jihad:  The Breath of God (thriller genre)

In a desperate attempt to get bribe money for his daughter’s needed heart surgery, Dr. Rudenko, a Russian bio-weapon research scientist, sells a genetically modified form of small pox to Pakistan through a clandestine operative. The lethal virus gets diverted into terrorist hands and smuggled out of Afghanistan to a replication laboratory hidden in Mogadishu, Somalia. After testing the virus on a village in the Hindu Kush Mountains, suicide terrorists attack the US and our western allies. Their attack exploits weaknesses in current airport security.

Dr. Kati Ruden, a brilliant virologist with specialization in small pox, is suspended by the CDC for her unauthorized publication of a controversial article about global warming and the possible release of the lethal virus from melting permafrost. The first case of terrorist-caused small pox surfaces, and officials are quick to brand her the top suspect, pointing out that she had access to live small pox and is a disgruntled ex-employee. FBI and Homeland security agents pursue Kati relentlessly as she outwits them at every turn.

Death tolls rise quickly as the highly contagious virus spreads.

Jake Thorn, Kati's fiance, is an ex-black ops specialist operating a team of former military specialists called G.H.O.S.T. (General Hazard Onboard Security Team). While protecting cargo ships from pirates in the Indian Ocean near Somalia, his team investigates radio reports out of Mogadishu about strange deaths. They find the virus lab in the city and sneak in late at night. Kati reviews pictures of the equipment along with detailed reports and immediately understands the nature and scope of the terrorist threat. She also discovers that DNA was altered in this bio-weapon form. Traditional methods to eradicate small pox will not work.

Government leaders attempt to stop the spreading epidemic using out-of-date vaccines and ineffective quarantines. Kati’s warnings are ignored. She desperately needs to clear her name so she can get back into her lab and work to save millions. Despite the rapidly spreading virus, bureaucrats continue to reject her story . . . until she gets help from a prominent freelance journalist. He takes her claims seriously and gets widespread attention from the media. Even the president of the United States becomes involved.

People are dying. Government quarantines collapse interstate commerce. Stock markets close indefinitely, and the world economy grinds to a halt. Gangs in cities and survivalists in the countryside fight against martial law. Chaos, death and panic spread worldwide.
Will Kati find a cure? Will Jake and his team destroy the lab? Are YOU safe? This story is not a fictional account about what might happen. It is a prediction about what WILL happen in the future of terrorism.
Reserved copies:  When the book is published, the first 100 copies will be numbered and signed. If you are interested in getting on the reserve list, please send your name and contact information to:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hard at Writing? (The obsession)

Time is precious. As I get older, a twenty-four hour day seems terribly inadequate. Why can’t I have thirty-six hours in a day, or better yet, a life-pause button that can stop precious seconds from frittering away?

Writing and time go hand in hand. Sometimes, I start writing on a Friday evening and only come out of sequester for nature breaks or snacks until late on Sunday. Okay, that’s not completely true . . . I can’t stand fur jackets on my teeth, so I also brush regularly. When I get tired, I pull the recline-lever on my writing chair, lay my head back and nap for an hour or two. I often awaken inspired by a dream, or some plot complexity percolates up from those hours of subliminal processing.
Hard at writing!
Do I have a life outside of writing? Of course, but priorities must be set lest my passion become destructive to people I love and others I care about.

Writing vertigo – that’s what I call it—a spiraling loss of balance centered around my passion for creating stories. It threatens relationships, pulls me away from my “day job” and leaves me grumpy about every day activities. I often lose track of topics in the middle of conversations when a plot device suddenly invades my thoughts.

“Thanks for thinking of me, but I just don’t have time.” I say that entirely too much when asked to participate in non-writing activities. Even my 45-year love of playing guitar waned recently as I dove deeper into half a dozen new manuscripts.

Does my love of writing teeter on some brink between high productivity and destructive obsession? Perhaps.

Balance is the theme of this blog. Writing can be very rewarding. It allows creative expression and provides the same escape from reality as our readers seek in our books. But, writing might also morph into an unhealthy obsession, harming other parts of our lives. Do you ignore your kids or spouse to write? Have you ever called in sick to gain time for writing? Will you interrupt your writing for exercise, to eat healthy or to take your dog for a walk?

How do we . . . do I . . . discover that elusive balance between productivity and unhealthy addiction?

Damned if I know. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

First Person POV . . . I love/hate it!

I grew up in a dysfunctional family. I did not want it that way, but I was a kid and had no choice in the matter.

I remember daddy beating my brother with a leather belt for spilling water on the floor while washing the dishes. Daddy had slipped in the water and fell. I covered my ears, the screaming was so loud. Later that night, I rubbed baby oil on the welts for Billy trying to reduce the sting. I mentioned it to my teacher the next day and she called the police.

I saw daddy go into a rage when he found out. I knew he thought it was my brother who tattled on him. I was afraid of daddy, so I did not say anything, even when the social worker took my brother away. I never saw him again.

“I”, “I”, “I” . . . it gets boring. Sure, a paragraph or two is fine, in fact, it can be compelling, but page after page of this writing style gets boring real fast.

First-person POV can be powerful. You’re inside the character’s mind, privy to their private thoughts, sharing their happy moments and suffering with them during painful experiences. Everything the MC sees, the reader also sees, but nothing else. That limitation poses serious issues for a writer.

Omniscience – In 1st person, every scene can only be related from the main character’s POV. There can be no outside awareness . . . no man hidden in the shadow around the corner, or knowledge of preparations by the antagonist for an unexpected conflict. Every scene is limited strictly to the MC’s view, knowledge and experience.

Reader exhaustion – How many times can a reader see the pronoun “I” before it becomes annoying: I did, I was, I am . . . or even using active verbs . . . I ran, I jumped, I ate, I hated. The opening example (above) illustrates the excessive “I” dilemma.

Other writing techniques are limited, too.

Foreshadowing - In 1st-person, tension comes primarily from suspicions or knowledge, expressed to the reader through dialog, internal thought, or narrative. The MC can only tell the reader about matters that he/she should know about or that are introduced to the MC by an outside source. For example, “Luke. Trust the force!” (This was masterful foreshadowing when Obi Wan’s voice popped up in Luke’s mind during the vent-targeting scene against the Death Star. It created expectation and foreshadowed a result.)
Scene building – Scenes can only show 1) what the MC sees or already knows, and expresses to the reader through narration or dialog, or 2) information given to the MC from an outside source, one that is also shared with the reader. There is no omniscent narrator warning the reader about the massive wall of snow coming loose on the ridge above the lodge. The MC and reader do not get wind of the avalanche until a wall of ice blows through the picture window, hence, the reader was deprived of anticipatory anxiety.
So, how do we writers get around these 1st-person limitations?

Very carefully.
Let’s look at a re-write of the opening example. This time, the goal is to minimize the use of “I” and to generate sentences that begin with action words instead of boring articles and pronouns.

I grew up in a dysfunctional family. Not that I wanted it that way, but kids rarely get much choice in the matter.

Discipline came from a leather belt. Daddy did not know any other way. One time, he slipped in water my brother spilled while washing the dishes. Screams from my brother’s punishment made me cover my ears. Later that night, I rubbed baby oil on Billy’s welts trying to reduce the sting. I told my teacher about it the next day, and she called the police.

Daddy exploded in rage when he found out. Accusations flew at my brother. Being fearful of my father, I did not say anything, even when the social worker took my brother away. Never saw him again.

The concepts (minimizing "I" and starting sentences with colorful words) in this rewrite can be repeated throughout a whole book, thereby diminishing boring repetition and creating vivid imagery.

What about foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing can come from the MC or it can be experienced by the reader, while the MC remains unaware. For example:

Booklets for women about how to do a proper breast self-exam lay on the doctor’s waiting area table. Being young, I scoffed at them.

They’re for old gals with saggy tits,
I thought to myself. Little did I know.

This example of foreshadowing used narrator (first person) internal dialog and the MC's observation of the brochures to suggest that something was/is about to happen, adding tension, and all within the POV of the MC.

Scene development works similarly. For example:

Stopping at the door, something felt wrong, but the source of the feeling eluded me. Gray metal looked normal, but as my palm pressed tentatively against the center or the door, searing heat burned flesh with an audible sizzling. Second degree burns raised painful blisters.
This brief scene conveys lots of information: character development-the MC acts on his intuition, visual/imagery-he’s facing a metal door implying commercial structure, conflict/tension-fire is raging on the other side. This scene accomplishes many goals, all with information the MC experiences first-hand . . . and none of those damn I’s.

In writing first person, the key issues are to 1) limit every piece of information to what the MC would actually know or experience . . . that includes all scene development, foreshadowing, dialog or narration, and 2) avoid repetitive sentence constructions.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Creativity - Let the Beast Out

I was a daydreamer. "Mrs. Sault, something is wrong with Dean. He never pays attention. He's always off in some fantasy."

That was a criticism leveled at me by my Kindergarten teacher. I "failed" Kindergarten. Forced to repeat it a year later.

Shirtless author-to-be on right.
Is creativity a congenital anomaly? Where does it come from? Can it be learned? It isn't bought in a box or downloaded. It can't be injected in the mind of a person lacking it. Rather, some people seem to be born with this affliction. Others are not.

Earliest manifestations of creativity can be seen in children with wild imaginations. While most kids draw reflections of what they see, the creative child will draw images found only in abstractions of their own minds. They reach conclusions built on foundations of their own making.

Creativity often gets crushed in early years under the heavy palm of conformity, especially during the academic regimentation of elementary schooling. Parents who recognize (and value) the gift of creativity will teach the child to conform on the surface while nurturing the wild speculation raging inside the creative mind.

In adulthood, the anomaly of creativity portends out-of-the-box thinking. Einstein did not see Newtonian laws of physics in his mind. Of necessity, he learned the mundane, but privately, his intellect ripped them to shreds as he solved intricate questions unanswered by status quo thinking. Hemingway rejected eloquent prose of his day in favor of working man language, yet his genius was in crafting elegance from simplicity. Steven Jobs built a computer empire from a simple idea started in his garage. Such are the results of creative minds.

Writers seem to fall into two groups. A lucky few possess extraordinary creativity and have found release for pent up visions in their stories. Others, like me, have tasted the sweetness of latent creativity and struggle to turn the key in the cage door, hoping to release the monster.

What about everybody else? You might wonder, “Am I one of the creative few, or am I destined to a life of structure and perpetually satisfied curiosity?"

Rise great steed. Off to the frog prince's castle.
The nice thing about creativity is that IF you long for it, then it's already there, simply waiting for discovery and cultivation. You see, people without the congenital creativity don’t crave it. That’s the good news. By asking the question, you have taken the first step to free your imagination.

If you wish you were as creative as your favorite author, or as talented as your favorite artist, then all you have to do is remove inhibitions that life installed. Let the beast explode from your inner mind. Seek change. Embrace risk. When life presents a fork in your journey, choose the path that provides no preconceived expectation. Pick the one made more mysterious with its simultaneous potential for discovery and ominous uncertainty.

In writing, creativity demands we release our passion, without limit, and give the world stories that are uniquely us, not clones of others. Most importantly, we must write for ourselves. So, let your creative monster run wild and enjoy the surprises from within.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Less is Often More – The Art of Description

Life touches us in many ways, some good, some not so good. As a writer, I accept all experiences as the rich variance that makes life so precious. Cold helps to define hot. Sweet serves to illustrate sour or bitter.

Imagine a gray world in which vivid colors do not exist and all feelings temper within narrow limits. Love does not offset hate, because neither exists. In real life, grief contrasts elation, but neither extreme exists in this gray world. In my imaginary place, limits of emotions constrict into a blended sameness of dull conformity and feelings compress into a limited range of emotions with little room for comparison.

Someone I love suffered a massive stroke a week ago. All memory is gone…family names, my name, cherished moments in the past, personality quirks, even painful recollections…all vanished in a cerebral “blue screen of death.” For her, confusion replaced vibrancy. Her world morphed from rich fullness into the unnerving isolation of being a stranger in a confusing place. Rich history that once defined her life now exists only in scattered glimpses by a fragmented mind. In an unusual act of tenderness, Mother Nature blessed her with little cognitive function, protecting her from frightening realities.

I find myself selfishly obsessing over my own loss. Oh, what I would give for one more moment of recognition from her, a simple calling of my name and a brief, “I love you.” Alas, those words from her exist only in my own thoughts and in cherished memories of all who love her. Her mind has entered a gray world that protects her from anxiety and fear. For that, I am grateful. For that, I am also resentful. I want her back in her full glory, knowing that can never be.

As a writer, I see events differently than some people do. I don’t just live my life. I study life. Even now, as I live in the final time of a loved one, I find happiness in small blessings, albeit, some deeply veiled in the distracting fog of reality. For example, when I kissed her goodbye, perhaps for the last time, she told me she’ll miss me.

Odd, I thought to myself. She can’t even remember my name, but her last words to me are she will miss me. I wonder if she really understands . . . then again, I don’t care. It’s enough that she just said it.

Therein lays the blessing. While she does not comprehend her own fragile state, some deep core personality fragment still exists, enough to know she should miss me, but not enough to inflict emotional distress for her. For that natural protection, I am thankful. I do not want her to suffer.

I realize this is a writing blog, and I apologize. I should not use it to whine about my personal loss, but, I thought sharing the realities and lessons I’ve experienced with my loved one’s stroke, might illustrate wonderful depth for character building. The human experience in fiction should be as vivid to readers as my mother is to me. But, in writing, “less is sometimes more,” as exemplified by her simple, yet powerful, last comment to me . . . “I’ll miss you.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

More Show vs. Tell: Characterization

Terry W. Ervin, II, teaches English, writes books/articles/blogs, and is a local politician for his community.
Author Terry W. Irvin, II
Flank Hawk is Terry’s flagship book in the First Civilization’s Legacy series. It caught my interest a few years ago with its amazing characterization beginning on the very first page. Between a most creative plot and strong characters, I could not put the book down. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes fast pace, fleshed-out characters and unexpected twists.
I invited Terry as a master of characterization to do an interview for the benefit of my fellow writers. Here it is:

Dean:  Hi Terry, thank you for taking time out of your busy teaching and writing schedule to talk with us about characterization.

Terry:  It’s my pleasure. In addition to plot, character development drives my stories. Whether it is a main character like Krish, the unassuming hero in Flank Hawk, or the supporting role of the Colonel of the West and his gargoyle assistant/sidekick, characterization brings life to the story.

Dean:  I’ve read Flank Hawk and you’re right. All the characters felt real, despite vastly differing personalities and motivations. Characterization covers many topics. Can we narrow the scope of this conversation to the show versus tell concept?

Terry:  Sure, Dean. Characterization is an important element in almost every work of fiction, whether it is a short story, a novel, or anywhere in between. Writers have two options:

DIRECT CHARACTERIZATION, which tells what the character is like.

INDIRECT CHARACTERIZATION, which reveals information about a character and his personality through the character's thoughts, words, actions, and appearance. It also shows how others respond to that target person, including what they think and say about him.

Dean:  Is one method of characterization better than the other?

Terry:  An alert writer will recognize that the two methods of characterization fall under the decision to “show” or to “tell.” Indirect characterization “shows” the reader. Direct characterization “tells” the reader.

As with most “show” versus “tell” decisions, “showing” is more interesting and engaging to the reader, and should often be used in preference to “telling.”

Dean:  Does that relegate direct characterization to the prose trash heap?

Terry:  No. There are times when direct characterization is useful. Indirect characterization is more likely to engage a reader’s imagination and to paint more vivid and memorable images, but direct characterization excels in brevity, lower word count, and moving the story forward. It is up to the writer to decide when the use of each characterization method is appropriate.

Dean:  Can you offer some examples?

Terry:  Sure. Through the magic of internet interviews, I prepared two paragraphs below. Each conveys the same basic information, but one demonstrates direct characterization, while the other demonstrates indirect characterization.

Paragraph one:

Melvin King did not care for modern electronics and computers. He preferred the old days when a guy could work with tools in his hands and figure things out.

Paragraph two:

“That Melvin King,” said Sanderson, watching Melvin scratch his head in confusion at the engine diagnostic display. “He doesn’t have a clue when it comes to computers. Give him a manual, a set of wrenches, and an old engine that needs work, and he’d be happy as a hungry robin on a worm farm.”

Do you see the difference in quality of description versus efficiency in moving information? Both told the reader about Melvin, but one includes emotional impact while the other simply moves the plot forward as fast as possible.

Dean:  How do you decide which approach is best?

Terry:  The most appropriate method, and the amount of detail included, depends on the needs and concerns of the writer with respect to conveying necessary character information to the reader. I might answer this question with a reciprocal question. What does your story need? If the answer is to pick up the pace, then use direct characterization. If the author’s goal is to deepen the character/reader connection, then use indirect characterization.

Dean:  I think that makes it pretty clear.

Terry:  Indirect versus direct characterization is really just another writing tool that all authors should master and use with intent.

Dean:  Thank you for sharing your expertise, Terry.

Terry:  You’re welcome, Dean. Thank you for inviting me.
Dean . . . my closing thoughts:
Flank Hawk is a must read in the fantasy genre. To borrow Ronald Reagan's expression, it's a "darn good yarn," but it also serves as an excellent role model for aspiring writers on how to build compelling characters.
Blood Sword, the sequel to Flank Hawk released ten months ago, so you don't have to wait to find out what happens next in the series.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Show, don’t tell? Maybe not!

All writers have heard that nagging admonition, “Show, don’t tell.” But, does it always make sense?
Writing tools of "show" or "tell" serve important and very different purposes. They complement each other, and when used with skill, they advance a plot effectively.
Showing creates emotion in readers—that flush of heat in a woman reader’s face while experiencing a torrid seduction scene, or anger shared with a main character who suffers the sting of torture at the hands of a hated antagonist. “Showing” supplies details of the character’s experiences in such a way as to allow the reader to supply emotional reaction.
Telling does not trust readers to reach the author’s desired emotion. Instead, it “tells” readers how to feel. On the surface, this sounds less effective, but there are two distinct benefits of doing so. First, telling is efficient. It wastes no words and pushes plot forward with as little loss of reading time as possible. Second, telling moderates the relentless emotional assault of showing by creating a welcome break for readers in an otherwise fast-paced, emotion-laden story.

Pretty simple, huh? Showing generates emotion in readers. Telling moves the story faster and reduces emotional impact. When combined properly, storytelling wins.
Let’s have a little literary fun with an example.
Tell:  Mary saw Matthew's body as she entered the room. She dropped to her knees and gagged, nauseated by the smell. Vowing retaliation for the killing of her only brother, she promised to deliver revenge against her brother’s killer, Demonis Maximus.
Show:  "Oh, my God", Mary said upon entering the room. She dropped to her knees, ignoring the growing pool of Matthew’s still warm blood. Brushing back flies that swarmed on his wound, the stench of death gagged her. The dead man’s youngest sister shook her fist in the air. “My brother’s murder came by your hand, Demonis Maximus,” her words forced through clenched teeth. “I swear on the grave of our mother, you shall die by my doing.”
Which is best? Showing her angst . . . or telling the reader of her pain and promise of revenge.
Answer - NEITHER.
If this drama is not essential to advancing the plot, then it must be informational in nature serving only to link more important plot elements. In that case, telling advances the story faster and does not generate wasted words for the reader or unnecessary emotional angst.

On the other hand, what if the plot relies on Mary’s hatred for Demonis Maximus to provide motive? Or, perhaps the writer’s goal is as simple as character develop in building compassion for Mary. In either case, her reaction to Matthew’s death should be “felt” by the reader. "Showing" the MC’s suffering allows the reader to share the same breadth of emotions as Mary did.
One word of caution—"telling" can insult a reader's intelligence. If the author does not trust readers to experience the desired impact, and simply tells them what to think, then some readers will drift out of emotional connection with the main character(s) or the storyline. By the same token, excessive "showing" can get annoying. Meaningless dialog, or repetitive, yet unnecessary drama, actually diminishes impact as it wastes the reader's time.
These distinctions of show or tell apply to omniscient narration as well. A narrator can say (telling) it was a beautiful day, or this unseen story-teller can describe elements of a beautiful day (showing) and trust the reader to reach the desired conclusion.
Show or tell? That is the secret of the best-selling authors I have read. Every great writer seems to find just the right balance between showing and telling. They know when to ramp up the emotional impact with dramatic showing and when to “tell” the plot forward to give the reader a breather before the next high-energy scene.
Understand the difference between these important skills, and use them with purpose, not by accident. Oh, and by all means, TRUST your readers.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Sweet Spots: Taming the Word Count Monster

Size matters! Especially in word count for aspiring authors.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Stories like War and Peace exceed half a million words. Is it really so bad if I sneak in a few thousand extra words?”

Let’s begin by understanding that word count is NOT an element of literary style. It’s a business decision. Publishers judge manuscripts in terms of market potential and production/distribution costs. If two excellent stories reach the final step of the decision-making process, and one has 15,000 more words than the other, which one will the publisher choose?

Which book will the editor choose - 78K sci-fi, or 135K sci-fi?
Extra words mean more printed pages, more weight/cost, and a more expensive finished product. Higher price generally influences sales volume negatively. Editors know these realities, and they are acutely aware that an additional 15K of words means another 60 pages of cost.
Who gets to decide word count standards?

Readers do. They display their book preferences through historic purchasing patterns that include desirable story-lengths for each genre. And, book lovers are funny critters who want consistency. Publishers get paid to identify reader demands. Ever hear the expression, “Know your reader”? It’s no different for a publisher than for an author as editors cater to reader wants.

Do word count ranges change from time to time?

I wondered that, too, so I looked at new-author releases going back half a century. Word counts for first-time author releases have been remarkably consistent for decades. Recent invention of the electronic-book market dramatically reduced production and distribution costs, so you might think word count standards for digital books would be moot. They’re not.

E-book expectations come from two important influences. First, traditional expectations among readers in each genre-market tend to set word count. Second, e-books are often tied (in practice or by wishful thinking) to a print edition. In other words, a story released only in e-book format has no physical limitations, but if the publisher also expects to release a physical book, then old school limitations of production and distribution cost must apply to the e-book as well. Imagine the uproar if readers loved an e-book and bought paperbacks as gifts for their friends, only to discover that 40K of the story was edited out of the physical novel version.

What about awesome writing? Shouldn’t a fabulous story be able to defy industry norms?

This reasoning pops up a lot on internet writing forums. Wishful and idealistic aspiring authors gravitate to the notion that a great story can earn a pass on the word count issue.

Sorry, it’s not true. Consider a fabulous story in the YA genre. By current convention, it should run less than 75K in word count. But, let’s say this one runs 120K words and captivates the agent from page one to the last page. That agent must now convince acquisition editors at mainstream publishing houses to read the manuscript, despite its extreme length. That’s a tall order. Some editors will reject the story solely because its word count grossly exceeds industry expectations. Authors who attempt outside-the-box word counts might be limiting their chances of finding a willing publisher. Agents are smart. They know this, too. For that reason, some agents will automatically reject manuscripts with word counts significantly over (or under) industry expectations for a given genre. Do you want to eliminate a few potential agents or publishers before your book even gets reviewed?

“Come on, Dean,” you say. “I’ve read many stories with word counts far above the numbers I’ve seen recommended. How do you explain that?”

Easy. After an author sells the first ten novels, or climbs the New York Times Bestseller list, word count becomes much less important. It’s pretty simple. Successful authors get automatic sales from existing fans for their new releases. First time authors don’t offer that magic.

This does bring up an important point, though. Word count consideration should really be divided into three categories: first-time authors, journeyman authors, and high sales authors. I see comments all the time in forums where someone will cite the success of Tolstoy, Steinback or Hugo as justification for their excessively long manuscript. My response? “You ain’t Tolstoy.”

Let’s narrow this discussion down to first-time authors, since others already have publishing relationships and word count is less important. Would you like to know the ideal word counts by genre?

Marisa Corvisiero, Esq
I asked my literary agent, Marisa Corvisiero, this very question. She said ideal word counts shown below are for first-time authors in the print-book market. They aren’t set in stone, but straying far from these targets, diminishes your chances of finding an agent and publisher.

ALL GENRES from thriller to romance (except Fantasy/Sci-Fi):  85K

FANTASY/SCI-FI:  115K (120K if truly outstanding)

YA:  less than 75K

MG:  less than 65K

Memoirs and most non-fiction:  70-100K. (I usually find that over 90K is harder to sell.)

Novellas:  Adult - 45K to 65K

Short Stories:  10k to 45K

Marisa’s guideline word counts come from her professional experience, publisher/editor guidance and statistics for actual sales in industry publications such as Publishers Marketplace.

What about word count guidelines for electronic or digital-audio books?

Marisa told me it’s best to stick with the print expectations, because a successful e-book always has potential to expand into the print market. Many are planned that way from the outset. Readers will want the print book to mirror the digital story, so print book target lengths carry over to digital books.

Saritza Hernandez, friend, associate, electronic marketing guru, and Literary Agent in the Corvisiero Literary Agency, recently said, “In digital publishing, the word count limits for romance can vary but the standard generally runs (up to) 120k with the ‘sweet spot’ being around 50-60k for erotic romance, 75-90k for contemporary romance and 40-60k for gay romance. I've found if the word counts are within those ‘sweet spot’ ranges, the sales tend to be higher and the likelihood of seeing the book in print within the first year of publication (if not a digital-only publisher) is much better.”

I really like her advice. The concept of “sweet spots” for publishing and sales success makes a world of sense to me. Word counts should be viewed this way, as sweet spots that agents, publishers and, ultimately, fans expect.

What about sub-genres or special markets like those getting a lot of press lately, NA (New Adult) and Steampunk?

Marisa explained to me that Steam Punk can be middle grade, YA, or adult. Its word count should be at about the norm for the appropriate age group but can be a little higher because of the world-building and technology—sometimes, as high as science fiction and fantasy. NA defines a target market, as opposed to a specific genre. It follows the same basic guidelines for the underlying genre. For example, NA/Romance would strive for 85K, while NA/Fantasy might go to 115K.

I hope this discussion about word count provides you with the “reason d’etre” for the guidelines. As an aspiring author, the decision rests with you. Write your story any way you like it, but understand that your ultimate decision about word count can enhance or diminish your chance for commercial success. Truth is, the word count dance is only a one-time gig. Once you sell a bazillion books, you get to dictate word count to the publisher.

Hmmmm . . . move over Tolstoy! I feel a 600K urge coming on!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Agent Magic—Secrets of the First Two Pages

Literary agent Marisa Corvisiero points out that many agents never read past the first two pages before rejecting a manuscript. That's all! We, writers, spend hundreds of hours crafting our magnificient tales, and we get a paltry two minutes to capture the imagination and interest of the person who holds our future in her hands.

Will your first two pages capture their attention? Are they exciting? How about professional and completely free of SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) errors? It only takes one or two common mistakes to be branded “amateur” and get declined.

Marisa offers a workshop that addresses these issues . . . and not in some “sample” manuscript used for training purposes. Nope, the star of this event is YOUR writing! She will actually teach corrections, improvements and critical strategies directly within your own work. Imagine having a magic wand that tailors your story to capture interest of literary agents, and ultimately, acquisition editors. Well, here’s your chance!

This event takes place Tuesday, August 7…SIGN UP TODAY!

Here's the link:


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Free MS WORD Template for Manuscripts

Have you ever struggled with questions about how to format your manuscript for submission to literary agents?

Let me save you some time. Here are two free Word documents already formatted for submission to most literary agents. These templates are saved in both Word 2010 and Word 97 2003 formats.  Both formats may be requested through my author website at:

General formatting information:

Font - Times New Roman, 12 pitch
Spacing - double spaced
Margins - one inch all around
Header - Title/Author/Page number (note: page numbers are automatically added as your story grows.)
Cover page - Title/word count/author contact information
Chapter breaks - instructions are contained in the document for chapter breaks

Note:  If you cut and paste your existing manuscript into this document, be sure to delete all existing formatting before the transfer, or you might carry incorrect formatting from an old document into the new manuscript.

Feel free to contact me with questions if you have trouble with these formats. I can be reached through the comments section on this blog or by personal email at

Good luck getting published!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ten Basic Steps to Success – Does Your Manuscript Meet these Standards?

Here are my personal guidelines for building a story. I hope you find something of value in them.


1) Hook – How does my story begin? A strong hook should introduce a main character or initiate the plot, excite the reader and create interest in reading further.

Now, here's a strong hook!
2) Plot Clarity – A plot should be consistent from opening to denouement. Sub-plots are fine as long as they contribute to the storyline and advance the plot. Plausibility is critical to plot. My readers must be able to “believe” the story in order to connect with it emotionally. This even applies to the fantasy genre . . . readers want to know the “raison d’etre” for things that happen.

3) Voice/Tone/Mood - Voice, Tone and Mood derive from an author's unique literary style in telling the story. Most importantly, I should keep them consistent throughout and create the specific impact I intend.

4) Creativity/Uniqueness - Is my storyline unusual? Does it offer a fresh treatment of a common plot or even a new and unique theme?


5) SPAG - Spelling, punctuation and grammar. Occasional typos are to be expected in a manuscript, but very few such errors should be in the final version. In this day of spell/grammar check, significant SPAG may be interpreted as a lazy writer who did not bother to review the entire work.

6) Quality of description - Narrative imagery and descriptive dialog should exhibit high standards of writing and feature the concept of "Show; don't tell." Good balance between narration and dialog provides my readers with different perspectives and varying pace.

7) Character development - Vibrant characters drive stories. Are my main characters fleshed out and believable? There is a place for flat or static characters in a story, but main characters should be dynamic and compelling.

8) Pace - Pace enhances the reader's experience. It should rise and fall at critical points to generate energy in the story. Artists and advertisers have long known the value of “white space” for making their subject matter stand out. Pace serves that same purpose. Slowing pace allows readers to “rest” after fast-paced story elements and whets their appetite for more.

9) Genre clarity – Some authors mix genres successfully while others drift from one theme to another. I always try to stick to the main genre. I hate buying a mystery novel and discovering that the first half of the book is a romance story that the author thinks will build better reader-character connection.


10) Guidelines and Formatting - Did I follow submission guidelines? Submission guidelines are clear, and there is NO excuse for deviating from any requested manuscript formatting or submission requirements.

How does your WIP stack up in these critical areas?