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.



Spirit Matters

For me, writing a novel is a long journey of peaks and valleys. When the writing is going well, I’m on top of the world. When I’m having trouble with a scene, I struggle to avoid falling into a black abyss that threatens to derail the project. This has been the case with every book I’ve written. Why is that?

Spirit. If I lose my spirit, my essence, I can’t write until it returns. I hope this doesn’t sound like some kind of New Age crap. There’s nothing magical or philosophical about a loss of spirit. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance. It’s certainly more than a bad mood. Feelings of despair and hopelessness are more than a bad mood. The desire to highlight 25,000 words and hit the Delete button on my computer is more than a bad mood.

Fortunately, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. The open house for authors that I host on my Facebook page each month always energizes and encourages me to keep going. The sale of a book, a nice review, a kind word…I can’t adequately express how much that means to me. I suspect this is true for every author.

Today was a good day. I wrote 1200 words and finished a chapter. Pieces of January is coming along well. Tomorrow is another day. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.


I’m Winning the War

Writing isn’t easy, at least not for me. I’m almost 20,000 words into my current project, Pieces of January. I have days when the writing is almost (but not quite) easy. Those days are infrequent. Some days it feels like a battle to find the right words and fold them into a compelling narrative. Those days are the norm for me.

Some days I win the battle simply by keeping my butt in the chair and working until I get it right. Other days I’m forced to fold up shop after a few hundred words. That’s okay. I can live with losing some of the battles because I’m winning the war. Here’s what works for me:

  1. I write every day. If I take a day off I begin to lose the thread of the scene I’m writing. You might think that taking a day off would leave me refreshed and invigorated, eager to return to the fray. It doesn’t work that way for me.

2.  I do most of my writing in the morning. First of all, I’m a morning person, but more importantly, I like to get my work done so I don’t have it hanging over my head the rest of the day. It boosts my mood. I’m more creative when I’m in a good frame of mind.

3.  I stop at a point that is easy to pick up the next day.

4. I stop before I’m mentally drained. If I empty the tank, I may have little creative energy left for the next day.

5. My daily word count is modest. I’m not the guy that stays up all night and knocks out 10,000 words. I’ve talked about this before. 1000 words is normal for me. 500 is the least acceptable number. I’ve never exceeded 2,500 in a day. If I did, I think there’s a chance I would burn out and abandon the project. At best, the writing would be sloppy. 1000 words a day adds up pretty fast when you’re writing 7 days a week.

6. When I finish a chapter, I prepare brief notes for the next chapter before quitting for the day. I always want to have a plan for the next morning’s work.

7. I try to stay in the moment and not look too far ahead. Writing a novel is a marathon. It requires patience and perseverance.

This is what works for me. It may or may not work for anyone else. Every author has to find their own path.