Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pets in Print

How do pets impact stories?

Most readers have enjoyed pets at some time in their lives. Children learn empathy from pets. Every emotion from unconditional love and to dealing with death can be illustrated through animals. The movie, Old Yeller, brought me to tears as a child, yet it taught me worlds about love and sacrifice. Just as pets help us grow up to be better adults, they can enhance any theme an author wants to show. So, you tell me, why don’t more authors use pets to create or enhance plot movement?

Here is an excerpt from one of my current stories, Maker of Angels, a western romance:

      Tess reached to stroke my horse’s nose, but he reared back and snorted, front hooves slashing the air in front of her.
      “Whoa, boy.” I yanked on the reins, backing him away from her unwanted advance.
      Tess let out a fragile yelp and cowered as she stepped back.
      Plutus spun in a circle, stomping the ground, and he let out several hard blows. I tightened the reins forcing his head into a submissive position. He settled down but kept turning his head to face Tess.
      “That animal is dangerous!” she shouted. “He should be put down.”
      “Never done that before,” I said in his defense. “Maybe he doesn’t like you."
      Damn good judge of character, I thought.
      “If you and I are going to spend time together, that beast better stay in the stable. If it ever attacks me again, I’ll shoot him myself.”
      I was tempted to set her straight, right then and there, but I knew she might get crazy again. Besides, I promised Clyde I would try to keep things quiet until he healed.
      “You don’t have to shoot my horse, Tess. I’ll keep him away from you.”
      Tess got real angry.
      “I told you to call me Nelly, not Tess. How many times do I have to repeat it?”
      “Sorry, Nelly. I’ll keep Plutus away from you.”

What does the horse’s reaction to the woman tell you in this scene? Using the animal’s intuition about Tess, I hoped to show the reader how vile she is.

SKUNK?  We thought it was a cat!
Animals can play an important role in “showing” just about any emotion a writer can conceive. Let’s say you are writing about a depressed teenager, one who struggles with suicidal ideas and low self-esteem. Introduce a puppy. The teen can talk with the pup, stroke the little animal, or even cry while cuddling with the small critter. Readers quickly feel the child’s angst and get the intended message from the author.

How about the fear by a mother with two small kids, wary of an unseen beast lurking in the darkness of nearby forest? To enhance the tension, add a large family dog barking aggressively, saliva frothing on its muzzle, but even this formidable canine keeps backing away from the growing threat. Tension grows more palpable for the reader when even the protective dog backs down.

Here's one last example . . . this from real life. As a soldier in Vietnam, I visited an orphanage for unwanted kids, mostly half breed offspring of American soldiers. One time, I watched a quiet girl, probably seven or eight years old, as she carried a single butterfly that had landed on her finger. She proudly displayed the beautiful insect to other children until it took to the air and flew away. The child began to cry. I put my arm around her shoulders and consoled her, saying it was good of her to let the tiny creature go free. She told me she was not crying about the loss of the butterfly. She said, “I cry because the butterfly can go home to its mother, while I have no mother to go home to.”

It sure seems simple, this concept of showing tension and emotions through animal scenes. So, why do I see so few of them in stories? Evil, despair, love, anger, compassion, even lust—you name the feeling or source of tension—it can almost always be enhanced with carefully crafted pet or wild animal passages. Think about how you might work animals into your story. I promise, you will come to love this writing tool.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Get it Done

I looked at gold-embossed letters on a granite-colored, linen envelope and ran my fingertips over them. They read American Writers Literary Publishing Company.

My hands trembled as I slipped a finger under the flap and slowly passed it the full length to break the seal. A letter waited inside, one I anxiously expected for several months. Every day, my routine included waiting out front for the mailman to arrive. Dad did not know of my excitement.

After removing and unfolding the letter, I read it.

“Dear Mr. Andrew Townser;

Please accept my personal request for the full manuscript, Child of the Rice. We usually work through literary agents, but your query letter, synopsis and first five chapters are more than good—they are positively enthralling. I usually do not get involved in submissions, but my acquisition team was so impressed with your story that they brought it to my attention. They were right to do so.

If the rest of your manuscript matches this sample and your synopsis, we will be quite interested in publishing and marketing your work.

Please consider our enclosed request for an exclusive submission. We are pleased to offer payment for this concession from you. A list of top New York literary agents is also included. When you contact them, feel free to mention that you have begun negotiations with us and need representation. I am certain you will have no trouble getting their attention.

Do not hesitate to call if you have any questions. My direct phone number is below. I am certain you have a major literary success here and we want it.

Yours truly,


John Benjamin, PhD
Senior Editor”

I sat hard on the kitchen chair and thought about the story.

Child of the Rice began as a story about forbidden love between a Vietnamese rice farmer’s daughter, Mai, and an American soldier. She becomes pregnant, and he dies in combat, never knowing she was with child. Cast out in disgrace by her family, the teenage girl and her child travel to the slums of Cholon near Saigon. The story follows her through a terrible gamut from prostitution, to Communist re-education camps, to her child being taken by government officials to rape on refugee boats—a dangerous path to freedom. Dad never finished writing the story, but I loved the parts I read.
Reading light: Mai's village
My father got choked up when he explained the story to me. He was a stoic man, so his emotions seemed odd at the time. Later, it dawned on me. The young soldier in this story; he did NOT die. It was dad! He rotated back to the States, never again to see his first love. Since then, every story about Vietnamese refugees in the news became personal. In his mind, it was not some nameless victim who pirates raped or Communists tortured. Hunger, disease and abuse . . . she was suffering, and it was his fault. Telling the story might be his way to memorialize the sweet love he left behind and to say he was sorry.

I wrote the reply to dad’s letter.

 “Dear Dr. Benjamin,

Thank you on behalf of my father for your wonderful offer.

Unfortunately, dad died four days ago without warning. It was a massive heart attack.

He worked on that story for over ten years, but never finished, always putting off his writing until “a better time.” I encouraged him to submit the query despite the incomplete manuscript. I thought there was ample time to write the ending in the months it would take for publishers to respond to the submission. Nobody expected him to die. He always said he would finish his story "next week."

We are having the following epitaph engraved on his headstone:

Here lies Andrew Townser, loving father and devoted husband. Author of the next great American novel . . . if only it had gotten completed.

Again, thank you for confirming my belief in dad’s writing.

Yours truly,
Kevin Townser”

In the past month, one of my old writing friends, Al Pugh, passed away unexpectedly. In my last message from him, he said, “. . . it did give me an epiphany on a WIP of mine. I need to make my hero Sherlock Holmes. (big smile) I'll call soon, maybe tomorrow, depending on how things go around here.”

Next thing I heard . . . Al was dead. Nobody will ever read his Sherlock Holmes story. RIP Big Al.

Moral of this blog:  Don’t be an Andrew Townser. He's not just a fictional character that I used to illustrate a point. He's a metaphor for the possible impact of procrastination. Things do happen in real life. Don't put off your writing or you might deprive the world of the next great American novel. Get your story done, and start on the next one!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Devil is in the Details - Publishing Contracts

About two weeks ago, I received a publishing offer for my book, Maker of Angels. I was thrilled! My first impulse was to sign the deal and schedule a celebratory pizza feast for my family, friends and any nameless strangers who might like to join the party. What did I do?

Three fist pumps, a couple quick posts and private emails to share my anticipated good fortune. Then, I got to work.

I read every word of the document—every stinking word! Funny how legal clauses are boring until your future might be made or broken by some obscure provision. I discovered typos and disturbing questions about some of the provisions, but how do you question a contract offer for which you’ve been desperately hoping?

Will they think I’m a pain-in-the-rear, a Prima Dona author and withdraw the deal? If they do that, I rationalized, I’m better off without them.

Devil is in the details!
I hit the “send” button on my email list of questions and crossed my fingers, but I didn’t wait for answers. There was still more work to be done. An old adage in business is that a company can promise you anything as long as they can go bankrupt and get out of the deal. For this reason, the history of the publishing company is important. Are they financially substantial? Do they have any bad reports in industry watchdogs like Predators and Editors?
This company checked out okay. I even interviewed one of their newer authors to see what her experience was like. She gave a good report.

Everything seemed to be adding up. Nevertheless, doubts nagged at me. I studied their website for hours. Pricing of e-books seemed high, particularly for my anticipated genre. And, their POD book pricing was typical—way over the usual market price for comparable trade paperbacks. Contractual language only allowed for a “limited” run of traditionally printed books and while they claimed to have lots of distribution outlets, they could not provide Barnes & Noble for widespread marketing. I worried that my books might be overpriced and poorly distributed.
Meanwhile, contract changes arrived by email. The company impressed me with their willingness to negotiate, but one concern really bothered me. Charging authors a fee for services. When I mentioned that it felt like a vanity press, the owner of the company argued it was reasonable and not even a “fee,” calling it some convoluted refundable deposit or some nonsense like that.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m a simple man. But, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck . . . it’s a duck!

The company owner came across as aloof, and defended their publishing concept of charging authors for publishing. Her company policy of over-pricing books so they can offer false economy by showing big discounts was pure gimmickry to me. Do they think readers are stupid? My philosophy is to charge a fair price, one that is competitive in the genre’s market, and then deliver a superior product, i.e. quality story-telling. Word of mouth will generate high sales volume as readers have a good experience and tell others about it. My philosophy and theirs clashed. I declined their offer.

How does my experience impact you? I hope my excitement and subsequent disappointment may save you from misfortune. If you get a publishing offer, enjoy the thrill, but do not sign it right away. Vet the company, read the contract, and trust your intuition instead of following your heart. If you aren’t capable of analyzing the contract yourself, hire a literary attorney. It is cheap insurance. And, if the deal doesn't "feel" right, don't do it.
Ultimately, before you jump into the deep water of a publishing deal, do that important homework. After all, the devil is in the details!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

How to Set Up a Cover Page Header

MS Word can be frustrating. Here is the step by step to set up a cover page header WITHOUT a page number and begin the rest of the manuscript with a different header that includes page numbers. It's easy.

As you study the steps below, you can click on the picture for a large image that you can study.

Here is the method:

1) Start the document with NO header. If you have one, remove it.
Start with NO Header like this.
2) Select the Header icon on the Insert page. Make sure your cursor is on this Title Page.
3) From the dropdown box, choose "Blank" . . . this will open the "Header and Footer Tools" menu.
Notice the BLANK box on top in the dropdown box.
4) In this new menu, check the box "Different first page" . . . this allows you to setup a cover page header that does not include a page number.
Notice the green menu on top. Check DIFFERENT FIRST PAGE
5) Enter your book title and author name. It will automatically be left justified. If you wish to change to center or right-justified, highlight it and use the left/right/center justification icons on the “Home” toolbar to position your title/author in your header where you want it. Suggestion: choose the same justification for the header page as you plan to use for the rest of the document, and BE SURE to look at the submission guidelines in case they specify an orientation.

6) Next, use the slide at the right side of the page to slide down to the top of the actual page one of the manuscript.
7) Select the Page Number box on the upper left toolbar. Choose the style and location of page number that you like best. I prefer simple right-justified page numbers instead of anything fancy. Also, most agents and editors are NOT impressed with glitzy fonts or unusual formatting.
Add the page numbering format first.

8) This page will show the number "2" because the program counts all pages, including the cover page. To correct this, go back into the Page Number box and click on Format Page Number. In this box, enter the starting number "0" and it will produce number "1" for your first story page.
Format the number using the Format Page Number menu.
9) Now, highlight the inside edge of the page number and enter your story/author name. You can then use the TAB key to position that information in the center or opposite side of the header from the page number. If you are tabbing to the left, be sure to use Shift Tab, instead of Tab.
Use the TAB or Shift TAB key to position Title/Name.
10) One last tip:  if you use the space bar instead of the Tab key to position the title/author to the margin opposite the page number, be sure to leave two or three spaces between the characters and the margin. As page numbers move from one digit to two, or two to three digits, you might exceed the spaces available on the line, thereby forcing your page number onto the next line. To prevent this, be sure to leave three character spaces between the info and the margin.
And . . . here is the finished product!
Cover Page with no page number
First page beginning with Page 1