Chasing the Title

Writing is easy. Good writing is hard. One of the hardest things for me is coming up with titles for my books. I ponder; I vacillate; I tear up my notes and start over. If I could spare the hair, I would pull some of it out. The problem is, I can’t begin writing until I have the title. That’s just the way I work.

Here’s what I require in a title:

  • I don’t like long titles. All of mine are between one and three words. Long titles are harder to remember and potentially problematical when it’s time to design the book cover.
  • The title should connect to the book in some way. Whimsy is fine, as long as it’s not misleading or irrelevant to the actual story.
  • It should be creative in a way that will spark the interest of potential readers. There are about ten million books out there. A creative title is one way for an author to stand out.
  • The title should be unique. I’ve rejected more than one choice simply because there were already books out there with that title. I always check Amazon before I make a final decision.
  • A good title paints its own picture and facilitates the design of the book cover. I want a title and cover that are complementary. That’s powerful.

I have my title for the next Salem Matthews novel…I think. I’ve already changed my mind twice, but I love this one. My legal pad is filled with notes for the synopsis. The rest of the story is still in my head. I’m not going to tell you the title – not yet. Soon.


Can You Hear Me?

I love the sound of the English language…the distinctive Scottish burr, a rich Irish brogue, the precise diction of the British, and the slurred enunciation with dropped consonants and elongated diphthongs that can still be heard in the American South.

As a reader, one of my great pleasures is listening to the voices of the characters. If I’m merely reading the words without hearing them, either the author or I have failed. I just finished reading a wonderful memoir by a British author. I heard an English accent the entire time. When I read Stephen King, I hear the clipped, laconic speech of New England. The characters of Charlaine Harris speak to me in a thick, syrupy southern accent.

My favorite authors have a strong sense of place in their novels. That’s important to me, because it helps me hear the characters. A good story is critical to holding my interest, but it’s not enough. Reading words on a page, no matter how well crafted, is no good if I can’t hear the characters speaking them. It’s like watching a television program with the sound off.

My books are all set in a small, rural county in the Blue Ridge mountains of southern Virginia. The characters speak to me in a southern accent. If you read my work I hope you can hear them.

Invitation to Authors

Authors are invited to promote their work on my Facebook page today through Thursday, May 5th. All fiction genres, poetry, and non-fiction are welcome. This is a monthly event that I host.

I invite readers to consider this your online bookstore for the next five days. You will see an eclectic mix of excellent writing from a number of talented authors. You’re just in time for Mothers Day.


The Storytellers of Tomorrow

Most of my favorite authors are either old or dead. John Sandford, James Patterson, Stephen King, Nevada Barr, Jonathan Kellerman, and Randy Wayne White are old. John D. MacDonald, Robert Parker, and Elmore Leonard are dead. Where are the storytellers of tomorrow?

They’re not in an elite MFA writing program and they’re not enrolled in James Patterson’s writing course. You’ll find them in elementary schools across the country. The question is how many of tomorrow’s storytellers will survive the sometimes joyless public education experience with their imaginations and creativity intact.

The answer depends largely on the local school budget. If we continue to eliminate or de-emphasize art, music, band, and physical education in local curriculums, our society will pay a price. There will be few, if any, James Pattersons and Stephen Kings in our future. That’s nothing short of a tragedy, because great fiction can stir the mind and the spirit in a way that solving for X can never do.

Why do I think that art, music, band, and physical education are key ingredients in the development of future generations of storytellers? Think about it…a child that draws a picture is telling a story. They’re using their imagination and creativity. As a writer, I’m more interested in the story that child is telling me with crayons or paints, than I am the quality of the art work.

What about music? Certainly songs tell a story with their lyrics and their melodies. More importantly, the music can stimulate creativity in young minds. I write novels and short stories, but if I could choose one additional talent it would be the ability to write song lyrics. I love the idea of telling a story set to music.

School bands, choirs, and glee clubs are basically music taken to the next level. Children that love music should have the opportunity to practice their storytelling through their instrument of choice. If you don’t hear a story while listening to a soaring vocalist, a perfect string section, a shrieking electric guitar, or a thundering back beat, you’re dead inside.

So, what does any of this have to do with physical education? Physical activity makes us stronger and healthier. It clears our minds, relieves our stress, and frees our imaginations. Endorphins are amazing things, and they’re only obtainable through exercise. It’s a habit children need to develop if they hope to maximize their creative potential in whatever field they choose to pursue.

There’s a lot of good writing out there now, but I wonder what the world of fiction will look like in twenty years. We’ll see.


Rogues Gallery

I signed my first book contract in the summer of 2012 for the publication of my debut novel, Winter Songs. The publisher was a small, traditional press that continues to sell three of my novels. At the time I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to sign with a publisher that offered a fair contract and lived up to it.

There are an amazing number of unscrupulous and unqualified publishers that are interested in little more than picking an author’s pockets. A visit to Preditors & Editors, Absolute Write, and similar Internet sites will help an author steer clear of the worst of these scoundrels. Unfortunately, these sites don’t catch all the bad guys. The rest is up to the writer. Sometimes it’s a matter of reading the contract and just saying no to an unacceptable offer. There are several red flags that are deal killers for me:

  • Vanity publishers – These aren’t publishers; they’re vendors. All they want is your money. I ignore them.
  • Stealth vanity publishers – They may try to sneak in a fee or require an author to buy a certain number of copies of his own book. They lack working capital and confidence in their ability as publishers. They’re hedging their bets. I ignore them.
  • Miserly publishers – This is a traditional publisher that may try to lowball the author on royalty percentages and payout frequency. Instead of the usual 40% for e-books and 10% for print, they may offer 30% for e-books. By the way, I know this from personal experience. I swallowed hard and signed a contract like this. I’m sorry I did.
  • Greedy publishers – They will try to take an author’s film rights even though they have no connections in the film industry and no chance of ever selling the movie or television rights to the author’s work. This prevents the author from independently seeking a film agent that actually has connections. Any small, traditional publisher that does this is unethical, in my opinion. Again, I speak from personal experience.
  • Hobbyists – These are usually micro-publishers that have few, if any, employees, lack capital and expertise, and hold regular jobs. If they get sick or die, the press is likely to collapse and the author is screwed. Actually, the author is already screwed because his work is in the hands of amateurs for whom publishing is a sideline. Avoid them.

The publishing landscape is littered with  minefields. That’s an unfortunate fact. If you’re an author, be careful.


Adopt An Artist

Whenever I visit a theme park, crafts festival, or art show I feel a close connection to the vendors sitting patiently, or not so patiently, in their stalls. I can see the controlled anxiety in their faces as they watch the people stroll by their displays, sometimes stopping but rarely buying. It’s a hard way to make a living and is not even sustainable as a hobby if the artist continues to commit financial resources to his work that he is unable to recoup through sales or sponsorships.

Indie authors are in the same boat. They front the costs of editing, proofreading, printing, and cover design for their work. Then they pay for boxes of books that they hope to sell from their blog or website, at book shows and signings, or through indie bookstores. If it were me, I’d be trying to sell them at flea markets, campgrounds, Little League games, or on the side of the road from the trunk of my car.

Help them out. Adopt them. We adopt teachers by providing financial support for them to furnish their classrooms. We adopt sections of highway by keeping them free of litter. I believe indie authors and artists are just as worthy of adoption as teachers and roads.

This won’t be painful, so if you’re reading this you can stop making that face right now! Here’s what I’m asking you to do:

  • The next time you go to a festival or arts and craft show, buy something besides the funnel cake. It doesn’t have to be a huge purchase, but don’t leave until you’ve bought something from one of the artists or crafts people. This isn’t charity. Surely you can find something that would make a nice birthday or holiday gift.
  • Visit my FB page at between April 1st – 5th. During this time you will see the work of 40 or more authors on display.
  • Pick out one author whose work appeals to you and adopt them.

How do you adopt an author? It’s easy. You like and share their postings on FB. If you’re on Twitter, you follow and re-tweet their promos. If you’re on LinkedIn, you connect with them. If you’re on Goodreads, you friend them and recommend their work. If they have a blog, you follow them. If you have a blog, you interview them. If you belong to a book club, you tell your fellow members about them. You buy at least one of their books and review it on Amazon.

If you do all of these things, I’ll love you forever. If you do even one of these things, I’ll still like you a lot. If you do nothing else, I ask that you share this post with at least one person. A lot of artists and indie authors are counting on you. Thanks for your help.





What’s in the Package?

I have a theory why it’s so hard for many, if not most, indie and small press authors to find readers willing to buy their books. I’m talking about something other than bad writing, giveaways, and the sheer number of titles available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other sites. There’s nothing I can do about those things.

There’s another reason people are often reluctant to buy the work of new or unknown authors. They don’t know what they’re going to get. I’m the same way. It’s easier for me to buy the latest offering from James Patterson, John Sandford, Harlan Coben, or Randy Wayne White because I know I won’t be disappointed. I know what I’m going to get.

Hang on; I know what you’re going to say. What about the book cover? The book cover is just pretty wrapping paper designed to attract the attention of potential readers. It tells you little or nothing. What about the blurb on the back cover or inside jacket? That’s simply a broad outline of the story. It doesn’t tell you much about the quality of the writing or the narrative style. What about reviews? As an author, I love to get them, but as a reader I pay them little heed because they’re usually subjective and sometimes little more than a favor to a fellow author.

I’m going to tell you what’s in my package. Not that package. Get your mind out of the gutter. Here’s what you’ll get with my writing:

  • I write in the third person voice. I also like to use an inner voice/stream of consciousness technique as a means of adding weight to the story and the characters.
  • My genre is mystery/suspense/thriller with elements of romance throughout all of my books. These are not cozy mysteries.
  • All of my books are set in Shenandoah County, a small, rural community nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia.
  • The good guys in my novels are flawed because they’re human. The bad guys are disturbed individuals because I believe that mental illness is the source of most evil committed in this world.
  • You will find lesbians, interracial couples, homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, and murderers in my books because I’m trying to create something that is real. I’m not writing about Mayberry here.
  • There is some profanity in my books. Again, I’m trying to be real. The swearing is infrequent, not over the top, and not designed to shock or titillate. It’s an appropriate reaction to the scene I’m writing, and I make no apology for it. You’ve been warned.
  • My books have sex scenes that are germane to the particular scene and the characters involved. The scenes are short and descriptive without being graphic. It’s not erotica. Again, I make no apology.
  • My work has underlying themes of family, friendship, love, and strength. I’m not trying to preach or send any messages. The themes add weight to the narrative.
  • I kill people in my books. The endings are positive, but there is loss and sometimes death along the way.
  • The characters drive the story in my books. There is a lot of dialogue and interaction. I don’t write literary fiction. I can turn a phrase, but I’m not interested in burying the story under an avalanche of adjectives and introspective navel gazing.
  • The John Howard/Wild Pony Ranch series is appropriate for young teens and up. The Salem Matthews novels are a little darker and edgier. They’re appropriate for older teens and up.
  • There is nothing politically correct about my writing. If you’re easily offended, you’ll likely find something to resent in my work. You should probably stay away from it. Your disappointment is not worth the dollar and change I’ll make from your purchase.
  • My writing is good, and occasionally inspired. I’m a fan of the spare style of Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, and John D. MacDonald.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope this gives you a better idea about what and how I write. If it sounds appealing I hope you’ll give me a try.


Speaking of Death

I can think of one reason why I’m glad I’m not an uber successful author of genre fiction. I’m not a prisoner of my own success. There are no external expectations placed on me and my writing. I can do pretty much whatever I want. One of the things I like to do is kill characters.

Have you ever wondered if iconic fiction characters like Alex Cross or Jack Reacher will ever die? I don’t think they will because fans would demand the heads of James Patterson and Lee Child on a platter if that happened. So, as readers we’re forced to suspend our disbelief while we enjoy the ongoing death defying exploits of Cross, Reacher, and their ilk. At some point there’s a chance these characters could devolve into mere caricatures of super heroes. I don’t want Jack Reacher to turn into Steven Seagal. I say this as a fan and admirer of the writing of Patterson and Child.

Characters have to die. Death is part of the human experience. The trick is picking the right time for them to die. I don’t take this lightly. Once a character is dead, they’re gone for the remainder of the book and any future books in that particular series. So, how do I decide when to kill someone?

1. They’ve become extraneous to the story and perhaps the entire series. A calculated death or murder can inject some tension, mystery, and possibly some misdirection into the narrative without adversely impacting the rest of the book or future books in the series.

2. The character’s words, actions, and behavior put their safety at risk. I’m not saying that the death or murder should be predictable, but it should be explainable based on events and actions leading up to it. Sure, people sometimes drop dead or are killed without any warning, but I don’t like to see that in writing. It’s gratuitous and too similar to deus ex machina solutions that authors sometimes force into their narratives when they’ve written themselves into a corner and can find no way out.

3. I’ve reached a dead end with the character and can think of nothing more to do with them. Perhaps they were never meant to play more than a minor role. Maybe I just couldn’t develop them the way I had originally envisioned. In any event, it’s time for them to go away. They don’t always have to die, but sometimes they do.

I’m just under 30,000 words into Pieces of January. An important death is about 2,000 words away. Let the killing begin.