Monday, December 6, 2010

Writing. . . It's a Job

Sorry for the prolonged absence, folks, but when NaNo comes around, I'm scarce all around. Even my family doesn't see much of me. And for those who are not familiar with the term NaNo, it's short for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The idea is to write a 50,000 word first draft in 30 days. Which is what inspired this posting.

As October draws to a close, I start seeing postings on Twitter and Facebook about people gearing up for NaNo. I see some published writers stating that they will be participating, while other published authors knock NaNo and see it as some sort of joke. When I questioned one of these authors who spoke negatively of the month-long activity, he said to me that if you are serious about your writing, you should be doing it on a daily basis, not saving all up for a one-month exercise.

He has a point. But to make snide comments and to treat the efforts of those participation with such derision shows a lack of professionalism. And maybe just a little bit if jealousy. But back to his comment: If you are serious about your writing, you should be doing it on a daily basis. Is he right?

Most of the books on writing written by writers state that you should write on a daily basis. Set yourself a daily word goal, set aside a block of time, and write until you meet that goal, even if your don't feel up to it. It sounds like good advice, if you can find a couple of hours in your day in which to meet that goal. Other writers have told me it doesn't matter how much you write, as long as you write every day--again, even if your don't feel up to it. Some days you may only get a couple hundred words down, but there are other days when you just might get a couple thousand down. This also seems like sound advice. But the best advice I ever got was from Hal Bodner, author of Bite Club, In Flesh and Stone, and For Love of the Dead. He told me writing is a job, and just like any job, you are entitled to your weekend, you are entitled to your sick days, your personal days, your holidays, and your vacation. However, if you decide you are going to take a weekend, make sure you only take two days off, then get write back to work. If you decide you are taking a vacation, decide if it's going to be a week, two weeks, etc., and at the end of that time frame, get back to writing. This is what you do; this is your job.

I've tried all of the above, and I find Hal's advice works the best for me. By allowing myself my two days off every week, I find I can approach my writing fresh. If I don't feel like sitting down in front of the computer on a day that I found particularly stressful, I don't feel like I have to add to that stress by forcing out a set word goal, most of which will get deleted the next day because it sounds exactly like what it was -- forced. And I have found that by allowing myself this time, and knowing that there's a scheduled vacation at such and such time, I don't feel like I'm suffering the burnout that I did when I spent months on end writing without a break, even when I didn't feel up to it.

Which ever way you decide to approach your writing sessions is up to you, as long as you keep in mind the goal is the same no matter how you look at it -- to get the words down because writing is, after all, just another job.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Inspiration: Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are

The recent acceptance of my short story, "Forgive Me, Father, For I Have. . . Burp!", started me thinking about the places I find inspiration for stories. This particular story had its seed in a Yahoo! group dedicated to Urban Fantasy author Mark Henry. For those of you not familiar with Mark's work, he writes, by his own admission, "zombie smut for the masses." If you would like to check out him out, please visit his website,

Anyway, awhile back, Mark made a comment about being the Father Confessor and we should come forward to confess our sins. Since he writes about zombies, I made a comment about literally eating my girlfriend and wanted to know if I would be going to Hell for it. That comment wouldn't leave me alone. It stuck in my head for about a month before I sat down and starting weaving it into something with some dark comic overtones. Never did I think it would see the light of day, let alone print -- I just needed to get it out of my head. Never did I dream it would be the piece that would get me published.

My completed novel manuscript, working title Ursa Major, which is currently in the editing and revising stage, started out as a bizarre dream that haunted my sleep for a couple of months. I kept playing with it, trying to figure out what I could do with it, and finally things just fell into place.

My second novel manuscript, which is just about at the half-way point, was inspired by Reba McEntire's version of the song Maggie Creek Road. While there is nothing supernatural about the song, the minute I heard it, the story was born. Other projects I have waiting in the wings have been inspired by questions posed in Facebook, snippets of overheard conversations at different locations, tabloids, the nightly News, etc. The sources of inspiration are endless; you just have to be open to them.

Where did you get the inspiration for your current work in progress?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Debate Continues: Outline vs Creative Free-style

In recent posts, a couple of published authors discussed how they worked sans outline when approaching a new project. Today, we hear from the other court as Carla René talks about working with an outline.

Carla René is a professional stand-up comedienne, TV/stage actor, and author of The Gaslight Journal, as well as two short-story collections. She also writes a regular comedy column at

Having just completed my very first novel, and beginning it many years ago—never sure if I was going to finish it—I intuitively created an outline for it. Granted, it was a very bare-bones outline, but it was there.

Much like minimum word count, outlines are a requirement of agents and publishers. Agents normally require them from your second contracted book and forward in the process, but not for the first one. Thus, if you're shooting for a mainstream DTB publisher, you need to get yourself in the habit of using them. However, if you're going the indie route, and you know best how you work (some can retain details in their head, some can't), and it won't trip you up, then don't use it.

On November 1, I hope to begin my second novel in NaNoWriMo. So therefore, I am definitely attempting to get myself into the habit of using an outline, each and every time. Except this time, I'm going to employ advice from Joe Konrath (he and I met in the same online writing group back in 2000, so I've always trusted his advice), and make it as detailed as possible.

If you do this before you begin the book—creating incredibly detailed characters, plots, settings and sub-plots—then there's really nothing left to do once you're ready to begin writing except enjoy yourself, filling in all the bells, whistles, and dialogue. He suggests making them about 30–45 pages.

I'll blog sometime soon about some of my own experiences with outlining once my edits are done, but for this next novel, I am making it as detailed as possible before beginning.

On The Gaslight Journal, as I said, mine was bare-bones, and as I wrote, I found myself revising the outline as the fluid dynamics of my story set in. I think I mainly revised the outline so I could avoid retrograde amnesia in my details. And especially with doing historical fiction, details are everything, for one anachronistic slip, and you've shot your plausibility all to hell.

So, yes—I recommend outlines. Keeping in mind, after you've sold your first book and landed yourself an agent, she will want one for every book contracted to you after that. They're a great habit to get into.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Birth of a Writer

I want to write, but there are countless reasons why I don't. I don't have the time. I've got nothing to say that will be of interest to anybody. I'm afraid. We've all been there, doubting and second-guessing ourselves, until we finally sit down to do it. It might have been easy once you got going, there may have been a pool of blood and sweat soaking into the carpet around your desk, but you did it. And that work that you completed? You were so proud of it! Was it any good? Probably not, but at the time it didn't matter. You did it, and that's what counts.

Recently I mentioned the fact that I belong to a number of Yahoo groups. In one of these groups there has been a discussion of "Plot vs 'Pantsing'", which prompted one of the members to stop wanting and start doing. I asked her to share her feelings as she sat down to start her journey. Here, in her own words, she recounts the start of her journey.

"I was asked to share how it felt to sit down and start writing — seriously writing. I have dreamed of being an author for as long as I can remember, but never applied myself. I don’t think I ever gave it much thought — writing was just a dream. And to be honest, I have rarely had a plot or set of characters come together in my head to give me the impetus — or maybe a compulsion — to write. So it was a surprise to find myself deciding to get serious with my writing about a week ago. A bunch of successful authors in a forum were discussing how they wrote. Many of them just start banging away and let the story write itself — with lots of editing and rewriting later on, of course. For some, stories are plot-driven while for others they are character-driven, but they don’t necessarily use an outline. I had always been told that in order to create a novel, one needed to outline and create the plot in advance, which to me seemed to take the fun out of the process. I had no intention of spending that much time on writing if it wasn’t going to be fun.

My experience this past week hasn’t been wonderful — I don’t have a blank page, but I don’t seem to fill pages. I’m honestly on page three of my story and I’ve given four or five hours to the project. I started out quickly enough but when I re-read the beginning, it was dead. I realized that I had been telling the story rather than showing the story so that I and others could experience the story. So I immediately went back to the first paragraph to paint pictures and events with words. It seems that I am plagued with telling rather than showing. So every time I manage to write down a paragraph, I make myself go back and fill in all the detail. Again, and again, and again, until it does have some life to it. What starts out as a paragraph ends up being two or three paragraphs (at least) when it brings the reader into the experience. One would think that as a result I would have at least eight to ten pages now due to expanding what I had originally written. Not so. Because I’m never satisfied even if I can bring the scene alive. I keep fiddling with it.

To my surprise, I suspect that maybe my BORING, dead writing is an outline. I’m wondering if it might make sense to continue on with the boring writing and fill it in later with descriptions of the characters and events that bring the story to life. Because I’m getting nowhere fast. If I can complete the work, whether I consider it an outline or not, I will have something that I can edit or change as I like. My current process is clearly not working. I am going over everything with such a fine comb that there’s no room for creativity to exist.

As I look at my work in progress I am amazed, frustrated, amused (one has to laugh at oneself), and determined. I don’t know whether I will ever be published or whether what I write will be any good, but I intend to find out. And the surprises keep coming. I am learning about myself as well as about writing. I wonder whether I will have learned more about myself or the process of writing when I complete this work. And I am having fun. It isn’t a lighthearted kind of fun, but a deeper sense of satisfaction that comes from challenging myself to reach beyond my current boundaries. Mostly I’m excited — but the page in front of me is quite intimidating. However, I refuse to let that blank page stop me before I have discovered my true capabilities."

Timothy Hallinan Weighs in on Plot vs "Pantsing"

As part of an ongoing debate, I've invited Timothy Hallinan to weigh in on the Plot vs "Pantsing" issue. Timothy Hallinan has written ten published novels under his own name and half a dozen more in disguise. His books have made Ten Best lists here and abroad, been translated into half a dozen languages, received starred reviews from all the publishing trade papers, and gotten remarkably enthusiastic critical reactions all across the country. The Denver Post called his current series of Poke Rafferty thrillers set in Bangkok "Extraordinary," and Deadly Pleasures Magazine said, "The Poke Rafferty books have become my very favorite series." Hallinan is the only writer ever to write the Mystery of the Month in BookPage for three years running, and all four of the Rafferty novels have been picks in BookSense.

Thanks, Mike for allowing me to have a say.

There may be dozens of ways for writers to depict character, create settings, preserve tension, increase stakes, draw the reader in, make a story readable, but there are only two ways to plot -- in advance, or by the seat of one's pants. I'm a pantser, pure and simple. I love the exhilaration of saying, in essence, "Let me tell you a story," with no idea whatsoever what that story will be.

I need a character who interests me in a situation that has potential to become more complex as it develops. That's pretty much all I need. The rest of it -- the actual writing, the discovery of the story I'm telling -- a story that seems to present itself to me in bolts, like fabric -- that's the part I love.

I even love it when I'm completely lost, as I am right now in my current book. I know something is happening here, as Bob Dylan once wrote, but I don't know what it is. And that's fine with me. I don't want to know. When the time is right, a character will do something, a door will open, a secret will be revealed, a lie will be penetrated -- whatever form it may take, the magic will happen.

In my most recent Bangkok thriller, The Queen of Patpong, I have a character, a teenage girl, who's being pitched to go down to Bangkok and work in the bars. I had absolutely no idea how to tell that story, until the bar girl who's making the pitch reached up and removed a sapphire earring and tossed it to the teenager. The moment that earring flashed through the air, it brought with it the first 3-4 weeks in Bangkok -- the amount of time it would take for the teenager to learn, first, that she's been lied to in almost every regard; and second, that her new "sapphire" earrings have turned her ears green.

It's a kind of magic, I suppose, although I'm not all woo-woo about it. It's just the way my process works. I frequently have the impression that the story I'm struggling to tell already exists, perfect and complete, somewhere in my brain, and my job is to tease it out without forcing it into the wrong shape. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I can do that by listening to the characters. (Not "my" characters -- the characters. If I think of them as mine and try to move them around, they turn into hand puppets and all the life goes out of the world they inhabit. And, perhaps most sadly, they become no fun to write.)

In all, I've had ten novels published (and by Big Five publishers, too) without ever knowing how the story was going to turn out. Six mysteries and four thrillers have brought themselves into being one writing session at a time, each day with its own little (or big) revelation. And sure, when you write like this, you end up with a mess -- but it's a specific kind of mess that's very easy to fix. I always have plot lines that are carefully established and then abandoned in favor of something more interesting, and also the somethings-more-interesting that are completely missing from the beginning of the book because they didn't present themselves until later. So it's a matter of going back and yanking the threads that were dropped while weaving in the ones that emerged partway through.

By the way, the six mysteries that I wrote in the 90s are now becoming available on Kindle and iBooks for $2.99 each. I had to look at them for the first time in 15 or 20 years before they went online, and I did it with a certain amount of dread, but I'm really happy with the way they've held up. The titles, if you'd like to try one, are THE FOUR LAST THINGS, EVERYTHING BUT THE SQUEAL, and SKIN DEEP.

I'm so addicted to writing by the seat of my pants that I've just started what I call THE STUPID 365 PROJECT, on my blog at -- it's a commitment to write a new blog with a minimum length of 300 words, every single day for a year. Today is October 3, and the third one went up this morning, and I'm already beginning to feel the pressure. Things should start to get desperate in a few weeks, since I have no idea how I'm going to sustain this for 365 consecutive days.

But I know what I'm going to write about tomorrow (maybe), and that's enough for now. It's just as E.L. Doctorow said about writing a novel: It is, he said, “ . . . like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And that's the way I like to do it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Andrew Kaufman on The Writing Process

A few days ago I talked about how I approach a project and how I don't use an outline when I am writing. Today, Andrew E. Kaufman, author of the bestselling Kindle title While the Savage Sleeps, stops by to talk about his approach to a new project. Thanks, Drew!

For me, the process is an intuitive one. Since I write character-driven plots, I try to let them lead the way. Keeping myself out of the equation, I think, is the best way to create a story that's genuine, fresh, and--most important--spontaneous. I see myself as a visitor in their world, not the other way around. I'm simply there to help them tell their story and to occasionally throw a hurdle or two in their way to create tension, then to watch and see how they work to move past them.

I've never been one to rely heavily on outlines, mostly because my writing process is so fluid and the story seems to change quickly. If I did use one, it would become obsolete within days. For me, it's all about The Journey,which I take every time I look into a blank screen. Charting my every step would take all the joy out of it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

By the Seat of My Pants

I belong to several Yahoo! groups devoted to a number of different subjects. In one of the these groups, somebody posed a question to the writers in the group, asking them how they approached a project. Did they work from a detailed outline or did they wing it?

I've tried both, and I have found I prefer flying by the seat of my pants. When working from an outline, I found that my work was forced, the events as they unfolded seemed contrived, and the characters stiff. No matter how real they were in my mind, the rigidity with which I was approaching the project left no room for straying. I had an outline and I didn't budge from it. I was working towards a goal, forcing characters to behave and respond in certain ways in order to reach the intended finale I had in mind. What I ended up with was crap.

When I approach a project now, I have a general idea in my head about what the story is going to be. Before I start writing, I create brief character sketches, complete with physical descriptions and biographies. With that in hand, I begin my project. With the loosely conceived idea, I find I have more freedom to create, events arise more naturally as the story progresses, and the characters speak and react in a more realistic manner. The characters take over and its like they are telling me what needs to happen and where the story needs to go. I find myself quite often straying from the original story line I had conceived, with events arising that I had never originally thought of. This rarely happened when I worked from an outline; I knew what the story was supposed to be and I knew better than the characters. They needed to shut the hell up and let me write. After all, I had created them; I knew what was best for them. How wrong I was. Now I treat my characters life E.F. Hutton. . . You know the commercial. . . "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen." When my characters try to speak to me, I stop what I'm doing, let them take over, and sit back and enjoy the ride.

If you're a writer reading this, I'd be interested to hear how you approach a project.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Writing Process

I've been following one of the many Yahoo writing groups, and today they were going back and forth about the writing process and which was the best. Many of them admitted to editing as they wrote, while others said they wrote their first draft and then went back to edit.

When I write, I don't work from an outline. I have everything loosely formulated in my head, and quite often I have the ending sketched out before I've even written two pages. Now it's just a matter of getting there. As a result, I tend to write straight through for fear of losing the storyline that I've created in my head. I suppose the easy way around that would be to jot down notes in a notebook. With that said, I have been guilty of editing as I go, but, as a rule, I try not to edit as I write because I find the writing process takes longer than if I knocked out the first draft without editing.

The first manuscript that I completed I wrote in two weeks working 10 to 12 hours a day. The editing seemed like a never-ending process. I often wonder what would have happened if I edited the manuscript while I was working on it. If some of the short stories I've written are any example, which are the projects I find I tend to edit while I write due to the shorter nature of the project, I'd still be working on the first draft.

As with any rule, however, there are exceptions. When I have stepped away from a project for any period of time, I find I have to re-read what I've written in order to get back into the flow of things. As I read, I find myself making notes on the hard copy I've printed out, and before I know it, I'm back into the file and and doing a full-scale edit, making changes, reworking paragraphs, and sometimes deleting blocks of text entirely and recreating them.

How about you? Which way do you prefer to write?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bastardization of the Classics

A few days ago, I came across something on Twitter that rubbed me the wrong way. A well-known publisher had asked the following question: Which classic/popular literary work do you want to see overrun by zombie hordes? Add your opinion in the latest zombie survey.

When I first read about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I admit to being intrigued by the idea. I thought it was novel, taking a classic and "zombie-fying" it, and I was interested to see how the author would approach it. Little did I know -- and maybe I had just read the wrong reviews -- that it was going to be Jane Austen's novel word for word with additions and tweakings to include the zombie hordes. For me, while there was an originality of concept, there was zero artistic creativity. This was more about creative editing than it was about writing. So for the life of me I cannot understand why this book is receiving the rave reviews it has. I would have preferred to see the author rewrite Austen's story in his own words and include the new elements while maintaining the tone of the original work. This, to me, would have been worthy of the reviews it has been receiving.

Now, unfortunately, due to the commercial success of
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, we are see a glut of copycats hit the shelves. There's The Undead World of Oz (which I have had the misfortune of reading), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, Alice in Zombieland, and War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, to name a few. And it hasn't stopped with zombies. There's also Emma and the Werewolves, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, and these are just the ones I've heard about. I'm sure there are others, and now a publisher is toying with the idea of adding more?! When is it going to end? Enough is enough. I would love to see these authors apply their creative energies to something original. Leave the classics alone and come up with something new.