Friday, December 27, 2013

Looking Forward and Looking Back

As an independent publisher we must publish, period, full stop. If not, you are just a writer with another job. The past year has been just that, a lot of writing, maybe 400,000 words, three books, two major rewrites, over a hundred blogs – and not one book published. And I feel pretty good about it.

The indie publishing world is like the universe, expanding in every direction without any control or governor (ancient term for a mechanical regulator). It's a country without boundaries, rules, managers, and police. It's the classic example of a business model under the absolute and total control of the marketplace. Sure there are those who bitch about Amazon's rules and/or it's processes or Mark Coker's Smashwords, or those few others who try to be some type of a gatekeeper, but the reality is more complicated and bizarre. There is no one throwing life preservers to those who have jumped ship and are waving for help. It is every man and or woman for him or her selves.

But sometime its necessary to pull back and reassess the process and what are the expected results. And that's what the next year will be all about, better management of the product and its exposure. There are some very bright people out there writing some very good things about how to get it done, I'll try to put some of them before you in this blog over the next year – we can attack this problem together.

My goal is simple; sell 10,000 books from the list of nine titles I will have listed by March 31st. (six available now – 3 under final editing and development). Pretty heavy goal but that's why there's a fence in a ballpark, something to swing for.

Reading List:
The past year hasn't been just writing, there has been a serious amount of reading as well. In no particular order here's a partial list:

Daniel Silva, The English Girl – great read and story, one of Silva's better works.
Sheldon Siegel, The Terrorist Next Door – fast paced contemporary cop story in Chicago, I recommend Sheldon's books every chance I get
J.K. Rowling (Robert Gailbraith), The Cuckoo's Calling – loved it, but much too long and with much Elmore Leonard would have suggested leaving out, since no one wanted to read those parts anyway.
Dan Brown , Inferno – Brown needs to punch his way out of the box he's built for himself, all and all a less than satisfying read and story. He could take lessons from Ms. Rowling on shifting career paths.
Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist – highly recommend this writer's wonderful story of Washington State in the late 1800s, in the Willa Cather vein.
Brad Thor, Full Black and Hidden Order – as always Thor tells a great story with his usual cast of tough guys and girls – all battling the evil empires of government (ours and theirs).
James Mallahan Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice – a classic from 1934, as scary today as when it was banned in Boston.
George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle – another classic from 1970 – no one can write dialog like Higgins – no one.
Stephen Coonts, Pirate Alley – Always have loved Stephen's books, good to great characters and stories.
Leon Uris, Battle Cry – this is the first novel I read when I was in grade school, just had to reread – Mr. Uris was an exceptional storyteller, he also wrote Exodus.
Vince Flynn, The Last Man – we lost a great writer this year, The Last Man is just a great read, Rapp will be missed.
Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key – It's good to reimmerse yourself in the classics, language, style, pacing. Hammett was very, very good.
Jacqueline Winspear, Leaving Everything Most Loved – as always Ms. Winspear tells a tale of people, events, and the inter-war period of England. You can taste the tea.
John Hersey's, A Bell for Adano – one of the finest books on World War II and its after affects on a small Sicilian village. Great writing and characters.
And a good bit of non-fiction for research for the books I'm writing.

Have a great New Years and I look forward to hearing from you.

More later . . . . . . .

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What Did You Ask Santa For?

I want to wish my kind readers a very Merry Christmas. May this season be the best ever for you and your family. I'm an unabashed romantic and traditionalist and for me Christmas is sparkly-lit trees, front yard lights, slushy snow and warm friends. You can never have enough Christmas.

So in the spirit of the season I have a couple of gifts for you and yours.

Ten gifts to get that writer:

1. An agent who loves them for who they are, not what they write.
2. A publisher with endless patience and excitement over your new project.
3. A publishing contract, with two additional books.
4. A new computer that writes wonderful stories all by itself without typos or the parts no one wants to read anyway.
5. An additional nine and one half hours a week.
6. An app that seamlessly interconnects all your social applications so you can write something pithy once and it becomes viral.
7. A séance with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, and Elmore Leonard. I will provide the bourbon and cigars.
8. A first edition of The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
9. A Montblanc Alfred Hitchcock Fountain Pen with white gold nib, black lacquer and sterling silver bands. They will never use it out of fear but will love it all the same.
10. Sam Spade's fedora and failing that, a black dingus.

The season is also a source of inspiration, fun, enjoyment, and reruns of great holiday movies we watch every year. Our goal to get through them by Christmas Eve, here are my top fourteen Christmas movies. And I emphasize my top fourteen; everyone has their own favorites.

The Thin Man (1934) – most especially the BB gun scene
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – Christmas and Jimmy Stewart, who would have thought.
Holiday Inn (1942) – where the song White Christmas was introduced to most people – it had been released about a year earlier, Irving Berlin wrote it in one long night.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) – the formidable Barbra Stanwyck and that wonderful politically incorrect coat, PETA is protesting.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – And how did Mr. Gailey get that apartment?
The Bishop's Wife (1947) – Cary Grant at his most debonair as an angel
Holiday Affair (1949) – led to the sale of thousands of train sets
White Christmas (1954) – we have watched this on Christmas Eve now going on 35 years straight.
Scrooge (1970 – Albert Finney as the miserly one, singing and dancing.
The Christmas Story (1983) thank you Jean Shepherd
Die Hard (1- 1988 and 2 - 1990) – yes, seriously
Home Alone (1990 - the first is the best and Macaulay is now 33, go figure)
While You Were Sleeping (1995) – a year before Bill Pullman did Independence Day, another holiday classic.
Love Actually (2003) – originally panned but incredibly endearing

All of these are great stories and some even have great music. Many of been remade but the originals are still the best.

Have a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year

More later . . . . . . . .

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Random Thoughts on Editing

Every manuscript (MS) needs editing, period, full-stop. And I don't mean the "get the commas and semicolons in the right spot" editing. This is the editing that looks at the story, the characters, and the thrust and parry of the interchange between the characters and the story. This is also where you need to take out all the parts that people don't want to read anyway (thank you Elmore Leonard). Even the best writer needs to step back and think about what to leave in and take out of the manuscript. I'm reminded of the whole cannibal episode in Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, why it's in there is still a mystery to me.

Here are some helpful ideas while attacking that editing job.

Compile Your Notes

After assembling input from readers and hopefully your story editor, organize their comments and observations in order of magnitude from most impactful to least as regards the story. Use them as a guide as you begin the rewrite. Keep this reminder posted on the wall next to your computer as you rewrite.

Color Key the Text.

Example: In my latest thriller I have three primary characters, the protagonist (the good guy), the antagonist (the bad guy), and a married couple that are fundamentally one character aligned with the good guy. To understand where these players interact (or how much space they take in the manuscript) I color key (red, green, blue, etc.) the chapters where they are the dominant player or players. Then in Word reduce the page view to 10%, the flow of their on-stage time becomes apparent, this will give you a quick look at where rebalancing may be needed. There are variations on this regarding scenes and actions, develop your own story coloring, it can really help.


Everyone says that you should take a break from the MS for at least six weeks; I used to think this was silly. I don't anymore. After this vacation  and armed with the comments from your readers and editor it is surprising how "new" the story seems and the flaws obvious. It is also easier to cut out the extraneous. If it doesn't push the story forward it is a good bet it's not needed.

"Ideas for the Future" Folder

I have already written one complete thriller from the inspiration of an excised chapter of an edited manuscript. The removed chapter was no longer was relevant to the first story but it was a good piece of work and became the inspiration for a whole new book. I have another removed chapter that begins a new book just waiting to be written. The adage "never throw anything away" is very true. Open that folder right now.

Revise Quickly

Jump in and push yourself as fast as possible with the first major rewrite. At this stage continuity becomes important as well as character development. Be mindful of what is going on in the story, connections, as well as shading for future events, and potential traps you are laying for your readers. If you can't fix it right then make a note in your manuscript notebook and make the revision later.

Revise Slowly

When you think it's done, it is not. Your last rewrite should be slow and grinding, question almost everything. Do the coloring of characters again, is there better balance, do they grow and change? Look to the text and the language, does it work? Is it gold or dross?

I have heard that some writers spend more time editing then writing, maybe. I can see that happening. But remember it is extremely hard to write a good story and perfection is, sadly, impossible. But damn good is all right in my book.

More later . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Inspiration – A Gift from the Gods

I’ve been asked repeatedly when I give talks at book signings and at readings: Where do you get all the crazy fantastic ideas for your stories and characters? I feign some sort of humility and say they come in a flash of inspiration from my muse (the other redhead in my life). But, in all reality, they often do come in a flash, then are chewed on and mentally ground up like idea hamburger, then when the time is right pounded into a manuscript. Such is the luck of non-linear thinking by yours truly.

I have also found that story ideas arise from a lot of sources, external and internal. I even wrote a short story (soon to be a full length mystery) from a very lucid dream. Sources like that make you wonder about inspiration. Back in the day these inspirations were often attributed to a muse or other outside influence, that may still be true today but more can be found just by trolling the internet or pushed by an advance by a magazine or publisher.

Below are some of the sources for many of my books, but I’m sure you have your own magic when it comes to source material. I remember during an interview that Steve Allen, the late gifted writer and comic, said that he carried around a notebook and then later a small tape recorder so he could preserve his inspirational moments; today, with your phone, the ability to keep an idea is just an app away.

Personal Experience
It is said that a writer’s first book is autobiographical or to some degree sourced from their past. I have to admit this is true in my case. Elk River, the award winning novel is based on my summers in Michigan in the 1950s and people I knew then; yet from that material (twisted by time and memory) I altered facts just enough to make for greater conflict and interest. I then pulled some of today’s social issues of gay recognition and acceptance into the story to add relevance in the farmland of Antrim County, Michigan. Many have loved the story.

In the first O’Mara Chronicle, Land Swap For Death, I focused on land developers and politicians - something that I have found go together like thick bread and sticky peanut butter. My forty years of experience in the construction industry gave substance and color to the characters and the story line.

Historical Addictions:
I am an avid reader of World War II stories, histories, books, movies, documentaries and even some of the current great web sites. The inspiration for Toulouse For Death, a thriller about the billions in gold stolen by the Americans from the Germans at the end of the war came from this very true story of the greatest theft in the history of the world (see the book The Monuments Men and soon to be released movie). I wove it into a historical piece and then a mystery that ends up in today’s modern world of stolen art and neo-Nazis. The headlines of the current discovery of stolen World War II art is intriguing. If it weren’t for the fact I wrote about it before the discovery means I can’t say, “Ripped from the Headlines!” Quel domage!
Current Events and Marketing
Often a writer has the opportunity to tie their story to current events and politics. Witness the profusion of books about the NSA, terrorists, CIA, and cookie cutter heroes and villains. The usual terror from outside the United States is vanquished by our hero or heroine thus making the world safer; but they are all just another Captain America rewrite. Then again you can’t make up stories like Snowden, Wikileaks, and the NSA spying. Fact is stranger than fiction. I chose the benign Americas Cup race in San Francisco Bay as an idea source for the international thriller 12th Man For Death. Both because of the event’s venues in America, Naples, and Venice but also for its marketing tails and the fact that it includes huge egos and great sums of money, all spectacular idea sources. And now with the American win I may get another shot at sales when it comes around again. Happy day! 

I keep an ongoing folder on my computer’s desktop that says Story Ideas. I post a quick note about a thought, or an article, or even a web site that might be mined later for a story. But like all prospectors you have to dig a lot of holes and sieve a lot of pans before finding gold.

So keep track of your ideas, follow leads, read a lot, and even watch TV (there’s a lot out there and not all of it is exclusively on Masterpiece Theater). Everything out there can be made into a story, it's the writer that makes it interesting.

More Later . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

10 Reasons Not To Self-Publish

1. You are a traditionalist. Writing is your life and you cannot be bothered with all the minutia of bringing your work to the public. THAT is why there are publishing houses out there!

2. You don’t have the graphic skills necessary to create a finished marketable product from your story or know how to find those that can help make your book real.

3. You don’t have the time, you want to write and only write. And you know that if Dan Brown can be published you have a very good chance of getting your stuff into Barnes & Noble too.

4. You are not organized. As you write you can’t envision what your book will look like in its final form.

5. You have a relative working for one of the big five publishing houses who actually thinks your work is good enough to champion the piece before the editors (his bosses).

6. You are broke, living in a French garret two blocks from the Moulin Rouge. The rent and the cold are killing you but the words just flow, that’s what your role model Hemingway did and look what he became.

7. You are not a fan of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. You think they are mind and time sucking holes in the universe and you are better than all that.

8. It will cut into your drinking and alone time. You need to puzzle out the next complication of your story, not try and find an ISBN number.

9. Your unemployment checks will soon stop (a conscience decision to leave that crap job and make a name for yourself like John Grisham) and you just know that the next rejection slip will not be a rejection slip but a contract. No one in their right mind can pass up your manuscript and you mention that twice (for emphasis) in your cover letter.

10. Your mother told you again they will be remodeling the basement and your desk and cot are not included in their plans. You remember fondly the two weeks you spent riding BART trains through SF Bay Area scribbling in your Safeway notebooks dreaming of that Scribner contract just before she told you that you could move back into the basement the first time.

There are many options that help you bring your book to life, from traditional publishing and agents to self-publishing and the many levels between. It has always been my take that each has its value and purpose depending on the writer and the story. Neither is necessarily better than the other but going traditional is a lot more frustrating. Self-publishing can potentially and personally cost more since you have to cover all the costs for editors, book designers/builders, cover designers, even shipping and marketing. But you are in control, you make the decisions, and you willingly can live with the results. And remember, most importantly, you also own the whole product.

More later . . . . . . . .