The Girl at Food Lion

She’s just an ordinary looking girl in her late teens working a check-out register at Food Lion. I wouldn’t have given her a second thought if I didn’t know her story. Let me tell you about her.

I don’t know her name, but I know she was born and raised in Conway, South Carolina. She was in an accelerated academic program that allowed her to begin college courses after she finished the eighth grade. That’s right, this girl started college at the age of fourteen and graduated four years later. She’s taking a year off to earn some money before she moves on to graduate school.

It’s amazing the things you can learn waiting in a grocery check-out line. Everyone has a story to tell. This morning I got a glimpse into the extraordinary life of the cashier at Food Lion. I wonder where she’ll be five years from now.

It wasn’t much, just a small moment in a day that’s comprised of hundreds of such moments. She won’t remember it. That’s all right – I will.



Holiday Shopping

Just a quick note to let everyone know if you’re looking for something good and affordable for the readers on your holiday shopping list, Tears at Sunrise is just 99 cents on Kindle!

“Incredibly compelling story! Couldn’t put it down!”

“Good story…definitely worth a read…”

“Interesting story and surprising ending.”

“…my emotions from hurt, anger to happiness I have loved the story from the beginning to the surprise at the end…”

Finding the Doorway

One of the most difficult things about a new writing project is deciding where to start. I’ve got my title, synopsis, and list of characters. The narrative is in my head. Now it’s time to begin the story. I can feel the nervous anticipation in my fingertips, especially the two I use for typing. It’s the same feeling I used to get on the starting line of a 10K or in the batter’s box of a baseball game. It’s not the same feeling as speaking before a large group of people. That, of course, is terror.

Simply put, I’m looking for the doorway, the magic portal that will take me into the story in a way that will make readers want to follow. There are no rules for this process, at least none that I follow. Call it intuition, a feeling, a sixth sense about the way to begin that makes sense to me and, more importantly, will grab the reader by the balls and make his eyes pop. By the way, those last twelve words are a clue that I don’t write for children.

Once I’ve found the doorway I’m good. The characters take over, twisting and tugging the narrative into something that’s always a little different than I imagined. That’s all right…once I’m inside the story my role changes from that of an author to a journalist of sorts, a transcriber of the actions and events that unfold. It’s an interesting and powerful transformation.

Why is finding the doorway so important? What does it matter?

If I don’t find the doorway, the magical entrance that transports me inside the story, I will have to write the story from the outside looking in. Writing anything from the outside is impossible; the prospect of not finding the doorway to a project is even more distressing to me than that last sentence I ended with a preposition.

Good news…I’ve found the doorway to my next story. Shenandoah Dark will be my fifth Salem Mathews novel. Here we go.


Music Lessons

One of my favorite bands is AC/DC. I love the raw, shrieking, horrible voice of Brian Johnson, the showmanship and guitar licks of Angus Young, and the thunderous backbeat of Phil Rudd. Fans of the group love their powerful metronomic style and suggestive lyrics. These are songs that can make a packed arena or a strip club come alive. Detractors complain that the lyrics are banal, the musicianship is no better than average, and all the songs sound the same. Regardless of your opinion, there is one important thing that AC/DC has that every writer needs – a powerful signature.

According to Webster, one of the definitions of signature is “something (as a tune, style, or logo) that serves to set apart or identify; also, a characteristic mark.”

The music of AC/DC is easily identifiable by it’s style, sound, and lyrics. I know it’s them almost as soon as Angus plays the first chord. Their signature is strong and unique and their music, love it or hate it, is consistent in its instrumental sound, tempo, and voice.

I strive for the same things in my writing: a powerful and consistent voice, proper  tempo, and words that will keep readers nailed to their chairs. I want readers to know that whatever stories I write, my voice will remain the same. You’ll know it’s me from the first paragraph…no unwelcome surprises.

It seems to me the relationship between writing and music is almost symbiotic. Both involve creating, writing, re-writing, and, hopefully, a publishing or recording contract. Writers and musicians are both striving for the same thing – creative and commercial success and recognition. We’re traveling the same path. Authors would do well to bear that in mind while listening to their favorite songs.

All right, that’s my music lesson for the day. If you’re interested in adding a little spice to your Sunday afternoon, let me recommend Whole Lotta Rosie. Whatever you do, play it loud.


Writing Update

I’m happy to announce that I have signed a contract with Rogue Phoenix Press for the publication of my new John Howard novel, Stone Ponies! This is the follow-up to Tears at Sunrise. It should be released some time next year.

It appears that I will have two novels (so far) published next year. The Salem Matthews novel, Pieces of January, should also be released by Torrid Books in 2018. This is the sequel to Silent Waltz.

My next project is currently in development. I have a title and synopsis, but am not entirely satisfied with either. I’ll need to do some more work before I break ground on the actual writing.

My thanks to everyone that follows this blog and supports my work. You’re the reason I keep going.

The Muse is Never Silent

Writers like to complain. Nobody buys my books. Nobody reviews my books. Nobody shares, comments, or retweets my promotional posts. My muse is on vacation.

That last complaint is bullshit. The muse never stops talking, but sometimes we writers stop listening. Here are a few reasons why:

  • We’re tired – It’s hard to think straight, much less listen to that creative voice in your head, when you’re worn down from work or lack of sleep.
  • We’re distracted – Sometimes life gets in the way. Soccer practice for the children, a new job, problems at work, problems at school, and a thousand other things can keep a writer busy doing anything but writing.
  • We’re sick – I don’t know how anyone can write if they have the flu or even a common cold. All I can think about is how bad I feel.
  • We’re lazy – Writers like to find excuses not to write. If you’re squandering writing time on cat videos and pictures of your lunch, don’t blame your muse.
  • We’re passive – We want the next story idea to pop into our heads while we’re doing laundry or watching a Southpark re-run. It’s usually not that easy.
  • We’re emotional – It’s hard to hear your muse when you’re furious, distraught, or even delirious with joy. That’s too much internal noise.
  • We’re old – Everything gets a little harder and takes a little longer. Energy levels decline. Budget your energy and work during your peak periods. If you’re a morning person, don’t expect to hear your muse talking late at night.
  • We’re scared – Maybe we have nothing left to say. That’s a frightening thought for a writer. The good news is it’s rarely true, so don’t despair.

Now that you’re out of excuses, quit reading this blog and go write something.

Vocation or Avocation: Which Kind of Writer Are You?

How do you distinguish between a serious writer who pursues his craft as a vocation, versus the more casual writer for whom writing is an avocation? It’s not easy, but it is important.

Let me first say that I encourage anyone who enjoys writing as a diversion. It’s a wonderful creative outlet. Let me also say that I will never buy your work no matter how good it is because I’m not paying for something that isn’t your best effort. If you want me to take your work seriously, here’s what you’ll have to do:

  • Have your work professionally edited. This is expensive if you’re self-publishing. It’s also necessary. There’s a lot of sloppy writing out there already. Don’t add to it.
  • Try to find a traditional publisher. It lends credibility to your work and ensures that you won’t go broke paying for printing, editing, proofreading, and cover art.
  • Give me a glimpse of your writing style, whether it be via a blog, newsletter, or even social media posts. I want to see if you can construct a sentence.
  • Be careful. I’m not a grammar Nazi, but if I see “your” used as a contraction for “you are,” we’re done.
  • Develop a general understanding of punctuation and style. Get the Chicago Manual of Style, or just check out the back section of a dictionary.
  • Don’t ignore punctuation, but don’t obsess over it. If you can’t decide between a period, dash, semi-colon, or ellipsis, flip a coin. I’ll never know the difference.
  • Build your brand. Show me your bio, do a press release for your books, promote your work on social media, like, follow, and share. Post and comment about issues that matter to you, but don’t spend all day on Facebook or Twitter. I like writers that write.
  • Go easy on the free books. I’m not impressed by writers that do mass giveaways. It diminishes their brand, establishes an expectation for future giveaways, and puts downward price pressure on books in general. That’s not fair to other authors. This is just my opinion. Others may feel differently.

Whatever you do, keep writing. In the final analysis it doesn’t matter whether you pursue writing as a vocation or avocation. You’re establishing a written record, footprints in the sand for future generations. People will know you were here. That matters.

Delivering the Sizzle

I have read some great stories that I was unable to finish because the characters never came alive. I have read some great stories that I was unable to finish because the characters and the narrative were strangled in endless, introspective, self-congratulatory prose. Apparently, the author wanted me to gaze in awe at the pretty writing rather than finish the damn book.

The best story in the world won’t survive a cast of one dimensional stick figure characters. If a writer wants to turn his characters into real people he needs to deliver the sizzle. I’m talking about writing with emotional intensity. I want characters that leap off the page and grab me by the throat. If they can’t reach my throat they should kick me in the nuts.

Real people are flawed. I want characters that are real. When my inner voice is shouting for the good guy to rip off Dr. Evil’s head and parade it around on a pike, I want to see him do it, or at least set the guy’s testicles on fire. I want to hear some four letter words come out of the pretty girl’s mouth. I want the ridiculed homely girl to dump a bucket of goat’s blood on the homecoming queen.

All right, I’m exaggerating, but you get my point. A good writer listens to his own emotions, he inhabits his characters and then brings them to life, warts and all. Good guys aren’t always good. Bad guys are sometimes a victim of circumstances. Nuance is good, but don’t overdo it. If a character needs to be hit in the face with a hammer, hit him in the fucking face with the hammer.

A writer can’t deliver sizzle by playing it safe. Nobody wants to read plain vanilla. Some people will love the sizzle. That’s good. Some will hate it. That’s almost as good because it means the writer elicited a strong, visceral response from the reader.

I would rather have a reader hate my work than be bored by it. Nothing’s worse than that.

Thinking of Mickey Mantle

I’ve always loved baseball. As a child, I thought Mickey Mantle was the greatest player to ever put on a uniform. I wanted to be like Mickey. I wanted to be a professional ballplayer.

When I got older I began to realize that Mantle was a deeply flawed human being. It made me think less of him as a person, but not as an athlete. Becoming a professional baseball player may have been a fantasy, but I didn’t know it at the time. I played at every level from Little League to college and had enough success to maintain the fantasy of playing professional ball.

Long story short, I didn’t make it. A couple of my college teammates did. Am I jealous? No. Those guys were a level up from me, and that still wasn’t enough for them to progress through the minors to a major league club. I wouldn’t have lasted a full season in rookie ball.

Here’s my point: a fantasy, particularly one that has at least a tiny chance of coming true, can be a powerful motivator. I’m not talking about goals. Those are more realistic and achievable. They’re important, but no more important than the big prize, the dream, the fantasy. That’s what makes my pulse race and sends chills up my spine.

My current writing goal is to finish Stone Ponies and find a publisher for it. My fantasy is to be nominated for an Edgar, sign with a Big Five publisher, become a best-selling author, and sell the movie rights to my books. The goal will almost certainly be achieved. The fantasy almost certainly will not. That doesn’t matter; both are important.

The writing is going well. Stone Ponies should be finished sometime next month. In the meantime, it’s the post-season in major league baseball. Maybe I’ll see the next Mickey Mantle. Probably not…nobody’s as good as Mickey Mantle.