Monday, November 30, 2015

NaNoWriMo Day 30... just, ugh.

1667 words a day. That sounds so... easy, doesn't it?

But 1667 words takes dedication, luck, and an easy to control schedule. It doesn't account for sick days (I've come down with a terrible cold which is only now subsiding), or holidays (I spent the Thanksgiving week either traveling to Houston or spending time with my dad who was visiting from Phoenix, and wrote nothing for three whole days).

I also tried driving for Uber (look back on how badly that turned out), got incredibly serious about finding at real job again, and of course I took the weekends off to spend with my wife and daughter. Well, I took the first two weekends off. I spent late nights during the last two trying to catch up.

All in all, I think I had about seven full days to write, plus half days or two-hour blocks here and there. For me, that's enough. Heck, I can write 1500 words per hour if I have a good idea where I'm going.

And that, my friends, is why I entered the last two days with 10k words remaining. Like I said before, I can't write without a good outline to tell me where I'm going. I start going down an inconsequential path or I forget that a new plot point contradicts a major past or future one and suddenly all my writing is lost. So, when I had to reconsider something major around the 25k word mark, it threw me into a three-day planning binge where I wasted three of my seven full days reworking my outline to account for the changes.

If it weren't for NaNoWriMo ending today, I could have, and I would have, spread those last 10k words out over the next month which, since my novel will be about 90k words in the end, is something I would be doing anyway. NaNoWriMo was merely a waypoint, not the beginning, nor the end of my writing. I plan to finish the week before Christmas, but without the specter of NaNoWriMo hanging over my head, that's a slightly flexible goal.

Anyway, in case you absolutely need to know, I marathoned my way through those last 10k words between yesterday and today. It helps that I was writing set of key action scenes which goes much more easily and quickly than, say, a dialogue-heavy exposition scene.

I thought I'd be blogging more during NaNoWriMo... ha! Not with that 1667 word a day whip at my back.

Whatever topic I promised to get to last time, I'll write about when I recover. I promise that will be sooner than the last time between my blog posts.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

NaNoWriMo Day 17... What's Working, What's Not

It's NaNoWriMo day 17, and I haven't been blogging much. Why? I'm incredibly busy, and no, not just with writing.

So, as I said at the beginning of this blog I was going to try to make writing work as a career. Sales on Kindle are increasing at a steady rate, so that's a good sign. But, it certainly won't fully pay the bills for at least a year, and that's assuming the best case scenario.

One option I considered was driving for Uber. Everyone I mentioned it to beforehand was very encouraging. "You can make so much money doing that," was probably the most common response. I didn't need "so much money," just "enough."

Well, let me tell you this: Uber DOES NOT make you "so much money" and it doesn't even come close to "enough." This is true in San Antonio where I currently live, so I can't speak to any other major city where Uber operates. But here, it's just not a viable option. I realized this Friday last week as I spent more than 8 hours driving around, wasting gas, without picking up rides. Friday is supposed to be the most lucrative night, and I certainly know the areas where riders would want rides, but I only made a net of about 30 dollars for working from 7:30PM to 3:30AM.


Before my last night driving Uber, I had begun calling in every favor and contact I have in this city and started really looking for a legitimate job once again. I'm quitting full-time writing. But I'm not quitting writing, not by a long shot.

I can't. I'm in too deep now.

Why can't I quit? Why will I continue to pursue publishing my stories even though it will mean filling in all my personal time with typing and plotting? Readers. They're like a drug, man...  Every time I see another purchase on my Amazon account I don't think to myself: there's another $3.44 for my pocket. I think: oh cool, another human is about to read something I wrote. It's exhilarating. These past two weeks, between purchases and Kindle Unlimited reads, I've had over 200 people check out my novel. That's awesome.

There are four accomplishments/acts I'm most proud of in life: my daughter, the effect my human rights career has had on the world (I recently played a tiny part in the conviction of Sadeq Alamyar, for instance), giving half of my liver to (and thus saving the life of) my father, and having people read a story I've written. Having readers ranks number 2 on that list. Yeah, #2, that's pretty damn important to me.

Anyway, all this Uber driving and job searching has gotten me about 7k words behind on my NaNoWriMo goal, and I intend to make that distance up this week with a marathon push before Thanksgiving inevitably slows me down once more.

Next time I blog, let's talk about my mixed emotions on Goodreads ratings, ok? I'm bookmarking that topic because I have some thoughts but 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

NaNoWriMo: Day 4

I'm still hanging in here, writing the middle 50k words for my new novel. As of last night I had about 6k finished, which means I was only about 667 words behind. Today that number is 2334. I think I'll get more done, and here's why:

Individual scenes vary greatly in writing difficulty

The scenes I was working on for days 1-3? A dinner party. I don't know about you, but those things can get dull very quickly. But, you can't just spice things up for the sake of reader interest. I could have had a meteor fall on the street below, but that would completely violate my the rules of my story's universe. So, how do I make a dinner party work without boring the reader into quitting?

1) Focus on what you need to accomplish. In my case, there was a lot of character development and relationship building to hash out quickly.
2) Skip dialogue. People talk a lot at dinner parties, some of that isn't entirely relevant to the reader even if the gist of it is. Write that it happened, but leave out the words of the actual conversation. Make sure to include a good proportion of dialogue too, but just the best parts.
3) Edit it down considerably when revision time comes. By then, the whole story will be written and the absolute most important elements will be clearer.

Writing boring scenes without boring the reader is essential. Most people judge a book not by its cover, but by the first pages. But the first pages are, with few exceptions, the most boring part of a book! While these scenes are essential to a good story, you have to be very careful not to lose reader interest. Naturally, writing these scenes is hard.

Today, tomorrow and Friday's scenes? Oh, a murder attempt! Exciting to write, exciting to read... EASY. But the impact would be lost without the preceding character development.

I suppose I could just put murder attempts, meteors and explosions in every other scene. That would make me the Michael Bay of novels.

But I don't want to be the Michael Bay of novels...

Side note:

For all the harassment people give Michael Bay for his ridiculous plots and tissue-thin character development, the guy is an action/explosion savant. Though it's not everyone's thing, the guy knows his audience and he gives them the best version of what they want. I recently watched and hated his version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (I watch movies at the gym), and though I was utterly disappointed, I did find reason to appreciate his work. If you can, go watch the scene where the turtles are sliding down a mountain with a big rig truck, fighting humvees with retractable shocking harpoons and answer this: what kind of mind can come up with this stuff? It's hardly cerebral to watch, but I dare anyone to say Michael Bay doesn't possess a twisted bit of genius to come up with it.

Monday, November 2, 2015

NaNoWriMo: Day 2, Pantsers Scare Me

Of course, NaNoWriMo had to start on a weekend when my mother was visiting...

I was supposed to have 1667 words written by today, and another 1667 by tonight. My grand total sits at exactly 0. That is, I have 0 words written during my NaNoWriMo push. Technically I already have more than 20,000 words written for my second novel, and tons of outlining/notes.

By the way, I don't know who out there might be reading this, but for some reason I saw a spike in sales of my first novel yesterday. I can't really explain it, but there are a few reasons I can imagine. Perhaps it was my NaNoWriMo profile which caught someone's attention, or maybe it was the fact that I activated my Goodreads author account over the weekend, or there was pent-up demand for books due to Halloween, or maybe my new ads on Amazon are gaining traction, and of course I can't discount all my loyal blog followers deciding to purchase a copy of my book *crickets chirping.* Anyway... if you have some insight feel free to leave a comment on this post.

So, today is going to be a quick post because I need to get on to writing before my daughter wakes up and I have to get her to school, get to the gym, take a shower and get back to writing.

I am a devoted member of the church of plotsers

According to writing blogs, there are two kinds of writers: plotsers and pantsers. The naming convention is suspect in my mind, as pantser sounds like someone you might meet in a middle school locker room, but those are the names others have chosen. A plotser basically plans their writing ahead of time, whereas a pantser just writes whatever comes to mind "by the seat of their pants."

I'm not going to sit here and argue that one method is better than the other. Whenever I start out, I like to have extensive notes, including character maps, a proper timeline of events, plot details and with my mystery novels, a map of the clues and red herrings I need to embed within the narrative. When I start out writing, I have a definite plan.

And then that plan is torn to shreds within the first 10,000 words.

The problem with writing character-first plots is that, when I'm planning the story, I'm planning it from my own personal perspective. But when I write characters, sometimes I have them in a scene where I expect them to do something but I realize as I'm writing that they wouldn't do what I have planned. So, these fully independent people who live inside my head start dictating changes in the plot. If I were a pantser, this might not be the problem it is. Every time something changes, I need to return to my plan and figure out where all the remaining plot points and mystery clues need to go. I couldn't imagine trying to juggle plot threads in my mind as I'm writing because most of the time I'm inside the characters' heads working out what they're thinking about. Keeping my notes external allows me to forget the story and just write the scene.

I'd love to see a breakdown of successful authors and which ones are plotsers vs. which ones are pantsers. Steven King is most-often cited as perhaps the king of pantsers, as he wrote in On Writing that he doesn't outline. I think the assumption is that pantsers are faster writers, as they are not bogged down by note-taking and planning, but I'd question that assumption because pantsers' heads must fill up with so much information that they get bogged down by the weight of it all. To be a truly successful pantser, you have to have an incredible mind.

I'm not saying I don't have an incredible mind, but mine certainly isn't set up for pantsing. I'm just terrible at memorization and holding multiple threads in my head at once. I have a mind which works by understanding how systems work on a macro level, but I can't remember minute details without some preparation ahead of time. That's why I loved physics and hated chemistry. In physics, you can get away with literally just understanding calculus and the basic rules of nature, then re-build the formulas in your head as you're taking an exam. The same can't be said of chemistry, which relies on information which can't be divined and must be either memorized or recalled via notes.

Final thoughts:
Some pantsers aren't genius writers who can juggle plot threads and character voices in their heads, they're just lazy.
Some plotsers aren't meticulous planners, they chronic procrastinators who are afraid to transition from planning to writing.

Nobody's perfect... but this post is way too long already and I have writing to do.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015

I have mixed feelings about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which starts tomorrow. I'm participating this year, as it coincides nicely with my goal to push past the middle of my sequel, and I'll be blogging about my experience a little more frequently during the month.

I participated in 2011, just a few months after my daughter was born. I did well the first two weeks, but trying to fit writing between working as a lawyer and taking care of my daughter meant losing too much sleep, so I dropped it. It wasn't very good, anyway.

I thought about participating in 2014 when I was in the middle of writing my first published novel, but it didn't make much sense. I had put myself on a generous writing schedule and was meeting my daily quotas with ease. It just didn't seem necessary to force myself to write 50k words in a month.

Then there's the quality issue. There are so many would-be novelists who participate in NaNoWriMo, come out with something tangible but ultimately lacking polish, then immediately publish it on Amazon. There's a lot of junk on Amazon, so between fake reviews on one side (Amazon is working on this) and unpolished amateur stuff on the other, it's hard for readers to find new authors like myself who actually take the time to rewrite and rework their manuscript into something readable.

But, I also appreciate NaNoWriMo for getting new authors started. I don't think anyone has a "special talent" for writing. It's not genetic, or a gift from God, or some crazy skill like figure skating which you have to learn from the age of 2 to be any good. Sure, innate talent, education and practice help, but anyone can produce a good novel if they simply sit down and work on it. The problem is, people think that after one month of working on it, it's good enough to publish. No, it's not. That's not true for Steven King, it's not true for J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins, and it's certainly not true for Susie/Johnny Amateur.

So, cheers to a solid month of writing goodness! (And also a 50% discount off Scrivener if I get through it, because Word sucks for writing a 90-100k novel).

Note: I am not affiliated with, nor have I received any compensation from, NaNoWriMo or Scrivener beyond typical consumer usage. Not that I'd complain if I was/did.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

This... is my job?

It's been a while since I last posted, and I'd like to say that's because I lost internet up here on my mountain. I did, but I'm not sure that's why I haven't blogged in a while. I think it's because I was mentally distancing myself from the idea of continuing as a full-time writer.

Why? Because of a job interview.

As I might have mentioned in my previous posts, this writing thing isn't a sure bet. For one, the money will probably never be as good as it could have been had I stayed on the lawyer path. Did I mention I am/was a lawyer? It's true. And a few weeks ago, just before I wrote my last blog post, I had a second interview for a job working in government relations. It was uncharacteristically short, but the questions seemed to suggest I had a good chance of getting that job. I fit the profile, or so I thought.

I haven't heard back.

I also did some political volunteer work. That was fun. I've worked in legislative politics a few times in various states and I've always enjoyed it. If I found myself with a job offer in that arena, I probably wouldn't turn it down.

After my last blog post, I started to envision my work life being primarily government/legal work and suddenly my dream of writing novels began to feel more like a hobby again.

But I still haven't heard back...

In the mean time, my sales and readership have continued climbing upward. I should have been excited about those things, because they suggested something amazing: I could actually pull off a career as a writer. I could eventually make ends meet with earnings from my novels alone!

During my last post, I promised to dive into how Amazon pays its writers. I don't see a better time than now to discuss that.

How does Amazon pay its authors?

First things first: I'm only going to discuss my own situation here. Amazon has a program with 50% royalty and a tiny advance plus contract conditions which I'm not interested in discussing today. I'm also not going to discuss traditional publishers and the various reasons why I chose not to even pursue that route. You have to save something for a future post, right?

Let's say you've published a book as I have. Great! Wasn't that fun? Now, it's time to get paid. First, choose a price for your book. I priced mine at $4.99. Now you have to get readers to notice your book... See my last post about getting readers to find your book.

Ok, so someone bought your book at $4.99. You're just one dollar away from that $6 burger you're going to eat for dinner tonight, right? Nope.

First, Amazon takes their percentage cut. You can choose from either a 70% or a 35% royalty rate, with 70% coming with a few caveats like minimum price, territory restrictions and, of course, having to pay electronic delivery costs.

After Amazon takes their cut, my $4.99 book nets me $3.44. That's actually really good compared to traditional publishing, but naturally you don't get the same advertisement resources, editing assistance and your book won't be on store shelves for people who don't read e-books. Oddly enough, traditional publishers have been less generous with these benefits in recent years, meaning they're more than willing to take a huge cut of your sales while providing less help polishing and advertising your work. Again, a topic for another day.

So, you get that $3.44 and that's your income, right? Well, no. You have to advertise, silly, otherwise that $3.44 will probably be the last $3.44 your book ever earns.

So you take out an ad on... Amazon. Sure, you could pay Facebook $5 to "promote" your Facebook post and get maybe ten people to view it. Or you could buy a billboard somewhere? (Not a joke, I'm actually considering doing this in my home town next summer to promote my series set in said hometown.)

Ads: Amazon's second cut of your delicious profits.

Amazon has a neat feature where you get the bombard people with ads for your book. You just write a header (50 characters), and a body (150), set a maximum bid price and a maximum campaign cost, plus a campaign duration, and off it goes.

Someone clicks on Amazon to buy toilet paper or a laser level, or maybe they turn on their Kindle, and then something magical happens in the background. Your ad bids for the spot against other ads, and the one with the higher bid wins. If you set your bid at $0.10, then your ad will be displayed fewer times than one with a $0.15 bid, though not 50% more often, actually more like 12% more often.

But, you don't pay every time someone sees your ad, that would be ridiculously expensive. You pay only when someone clicks on your ad. They do so knowing the price of your book, its Amazon rating, and the content of your ad. Then it's up to your book description, cover, ratings and the preview to convince them to buy it. The vast majority of people don't... at least, not on the first pass.

If you bid $0.10 per click, then you will have to make one sale per 34 clicks in order to avoid losing money on your $3.44 book. For me, I'm actually doing better than that. Yay! But it's not at all guaranteed.

Some people won't buy your book, but they might borrow it Netflix-style from Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program if you allow it. Amazon pays you based on how many pages those people read, an amount which changes every month based on the number of subscribers vs total pages read... and how much Amazon thinks they should keep that month. It's not the most transparent process, but it's hard to complain when you're just a little guy against a behemoth like Amazon (and, honestly, I find it fair enough). You can expect something north of half a penny per page read, which for my first novel yields about $1.70. It's half of what I get for a true purchaser (or close to the same as a $2.99 novel), but Kindle Unlimited users are an entirely separate market from à la carte readers. An Unlimited reader wouldn't have bought your book in the first place because they have their "Netflix of Books" and they're only going to get their books from there.

Kindle Unlimited users are voracious readers. For every sale, Kindle Unlimited users read 350 pages of my book (a ratio which has held constant over the last three months). At a minimum that adds $1.70 to each book sold, meaning my earnings from advertisements is actually $5.14 per book (a gross simplification, yes, but go with it).

So, my total advertising cost per sale is my average bid price times the number of clicks per sale. Subtract that from the $5.14 in earnings I receive, and you get your total earnings per book.

At $0.10: 5 clicks-$4.64, 10 clicks-$4.14... 20 clicks-$3.14... 50 clicks-$0.14
At $0.15: 5 clicks-$4.39, 10 clicks-$3.64... 20 clicks-$2.14... 50 clicks... you lose $2.36 per sale.

This... is why I'm thinking about driving Uber a few hours a week until my sales hit a few dozen a day, and why I'm still susceptible to job offers should they come my way. I know writing will probably never make me rich, but for what it's worth I'm enjoying every minute of it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How to Get Strangers to Read Your Book

So, I had a job interview today... second one for an interesting position as a government contractor doing policy work.

Are my days as an author coming to an end? Not even close. I'll always find time to write. And I've promised to continue working on the Jessica Carter series until it is complete.

But when I introduce myself, will I resort back to calling myself a lawyer? Or will I continue with my self-deprecating smile and say I'm an independently published author? Only time will tell.

In the mean time, the interviewer today asked me about social media experience. I took from his tone that he felt obligated to ask, but saw little value in it. I told him that, while it had little value for the position for which I was applying, that I've used social media and blogging (yes, this jumbled scroll of unedited thought) to market my book. After all, every author from indies like me to those published by major corporations are expected to "build an audience" on their own. Authors are now expected to be their own PR firms, which makes the benefit of being published by one of the big guys that much less appealing (another post, another day). But that leads to an important question:

How does an author get strangers to read their book?

Short answer: I. Don't. Know. I mean, if I knew how to get thousands of readers I don't think I'd be interviewing for some of the jobs I've applied for (the one mentioned above notwithstanding, as it's something I'd be happy to do regardless of my success). But I've had some luck getting both stranger purchasers on Amazon as well as Kindle Unlimited users. And both pay real, actual money! Amazing! It's... not a lot. But the way I see it, every new reader is a chance for my brand to grow. Each and every one counts.

Let's start with the basics then: step 1) publish and tell your friends and family to buy your book. They will read it, tell you how amazing it is (even if it's not) or how you should change it (even if you shouldn't). Those reads will bolster your Amazon ranking. And then it will fall back into obscurity. Hopefully you got some reviews out of them, and hopefully Amazon let a few of them through. Family and friend readers are really only good for early reviews, though I have a hard time asking for them specifically. I'd rather have one legitimate review than someone accusing me of gaming the system. Your early reputation can't handle the backlash.

Between step 1 and 2, avoid posting your book on forums with other authors. I trust the majority of authors, but there's a few bad seeds who will shoot your book a bad review just because it makes them think it will improve the odds for their book. It's a scary world out there for reviews. Don't take chances by blasting your book outside safe circles.

Step 2) Push your book on Facebook, your blog, Twitter etc, but do it gently. Get those last few friends and family to read your book, but more importantly, start building a presence online. New readers will look you up, so have something for them to see. Preferably you would have started this a year ago, but it's never too late. Start a blog, even if it's just random stream of consciousness stuff. Above all else, be honest. Let people know who you are, how you write, what you're all about.

Then finally, Step 3) get some ads going. I'm using Amazon ads. They're pricey, which is a bummer when you're only selling a few copies a week. Then again, without those ads I would be selling... none a week. I'm tempted to look around for another ad program, but since my book is exclusive on Amazon at the moment it makes sense to use their ad platform.

And... that's it? For now, anyway. Next week I'll take you through the specifics of my Amazon ads, how they work, whether they are successful or not, etc. That is, if I remember. If you're the one person a day who visits this blog, maybe remind me or something? But you won't, will you? Just stalk my blog then move on, eh? Fair enough.

See you next week... Stalker.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Character Observations: Nicole Arbour (Dear Fat People) Part 2

I bet you thought I wasn't going to publish a post today...

The internet up here on my mountain was not so good today. I had a lot to get done, and no bandwidth to do it. Also, my daughter's preschool sent her home early because she was "feeling sick." Ok, apparently she threw up twice. That's sick. Only she wasn't sick when I picked her up, and we had an awesome afternoon free of my normal writing and "other" responsibilities (what does a new author do for money? THAT is a post for a very rainy day).

So, by now you might have forgotten that this is part two of my diatribe against Nicole Arbour (Part 1). Honestly, I just needed to vent last week, but now I'm feeling rather detached from her little video. I've moved on. Great, so let's get started on the writing part.

Standard disclaimer: I'm in no way an authoritative source on writing advice. This isn't advice, or tips, or help in any way.

Every character has a back story. You need to know it, even if you never mention it.

So, let's craft a character based on Nicole Arbour. What's the first thing I do when creating a character? Name them? Nope. Just start writing and see if they "develop" over the course of my story? Hehe... NO. I frequently refer to characters as "puppets" though that description implies that I am the puppeteer. I am not the puppeteer. I don't control the characters, they control the story.

They're more like lopsided rocks rolling down an obstacle course. I determine the obstacles in their way, but they decide whether to bounce left, right, or roll right over them. I'll often plan a scene by writing an outline of where the characters are emotionally and plot-wise at the beginning of the scene and the end, then hope they let me get there. My characters have a way of deciding how to respond to situations as I write them which alter the game plan, sometimes significantly. This creates a more realistic plot, and it lends to more believable characters. Well-formed characters write their own scenes and have me re-plot and clean up as I go, which is easier than trying to form characters around the plot itself.

So, my characters need motivations, emotions, personality... in essence, they need to be as human as any other person in my mind. The characters Jessica, Ashley, Kristina, Andrew, Corinne, all exist in the same department of my mind as my actual friends and family. I can hear them speaking as I write dialogue, see them moving as they interact with each other. Characters are way more interesting than, say, scenery or political machinations (which, in my opinion, should only exist as a means to advance character interactions).

Not every character was abused as a child

Which brings us to our character, FakeNicole. I can picture her in my head, ranting about that poor kid on the plane. But how does she react in a different situation, say, when she was actually sitting next to the kid. We have some information, like how she put the divider down even though it might not have been necessary. What was she really thinking when she did that? How did she do it? Slowly, with a look of disdain crossing her face? Or did she look the other way, avoiding eye contact? Did she exhale with a 'harumph' as it landed in position, or did she silently shift in her seat?

To really get the details of the moment, you have to figure out what she's feeling and to understand that, you need to know WHY. Why does she have these negative feelings towards heavy people? When did they start? Did her mother tell her fat people are evil when she was four (my kid's going through a slight judgmental phase which I'm trying desperately to abate without making her self-conscious). I hesitate to make every character trait the result of some childhood trauma or bad parenting. Think about yourself for a moment. Are you defined by your childhood? Sure, some parts of you are, but chances are you've been growing as a human since you turned 18.

Just for fun, I'd probably say FakeNicole's prejudices started in college. Did they really? Who knows, this part is fiction.

Her roommate gained the freshman 15, while FakeNicole tried really hard to stay thin. But her roommate got good grades while hers suffered, she had fun with an ambitious friend group while FakeNicole felt isolated. FakeNicole became resentful, but for the most part still really liked and admired her friend even as her envy grew. She needed some way to justify why her roommate was succeeding while she felt like a failure, so she started mentally noting all the ways she was superior. She eventually decided that by letting go of her weight, FakeNicole's roommate was gaining some kind of advantage. She wasn't hungry during class like FakeNicole was, and she was able to eat anything out with friends, which was hindering FakeNicole's social situations. Of course, none of these things were really happening... until, of course, FakeNicole started to identify them. Once she defined herself as someone who sacrificed her grades and social life to be thin, it became part of her personality, and eventually, her identity. The anger came much later.

I write at least 30 paragraphs like these about each major character before I put them in a story, and I continue writing them as the novel continues (because as well as you know someone, there are always more things to learn about them). Even minor characters get at least three paragraphs like this, writing which is both essential to the story, but never read. Sometimes elements from these bio-paragraphs work their way into character descriptions or even contribute to the plot, but for the most part these add nothing to the novel other than deepening the characters' backstory.

All that said, writing a sequel is a very interesting proposition from a character standpoint. Not only do you have backstory from before the first novel, but you have what happened in the first novel, how the character perceives what happened in the first novel, and what happened between the first novel and the second. With luck, characters will change in ways which stay true to their original conception but reflect the events which readers experienced first-hand.

Think you'll see FakeNicole in my next novel? There's always a chance... But you'll have to wait to find out. In the mean time, why not check out my debut novel? Join the "dozens" of people who have already gotten to know the people who exist solely inside my cramped little brain.

(Yes, I said "dozens." I'm proud of that number, ok? I'd like it to be "thousands," I'd settle for "hundreds," but I'm damn proud of "dozens" thus far as an unknown author.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Character Observations: Nicole Arbour (Dear Fat People) Part 1

Last week after I finished writing my blog post about societal judgment being a theme in my first novel, I turned on Facebook and saw a link posted by my cousin about someone named Nicole Arbour.

I'm a little... slow... when it comes to pop culture things. About two years ago I used to watch stuff on YouTube like Fine Bros., Grace Helbig, Minecraft vids, etc. and so I haven't always been out of touch. But I live in a house on a mountain and the internet is spotty, so without YouTube I've become slightly behind the times. I missed the original "Dear Fat People" video when it was viral and had to hear about it on Facebook like someone's grandmother.

Fun fact: I originally based parts of my lead character off of Grace Helbig's video blogging, but went in another direction. However, a new character in my second novel features some of those traits. Recycling!

I immediately knew I needed to write a post about this girl, but what? I thought about refuting her claims, but that's been done to death and honestly, I read a transcript of the video and the only word to describe her thoughts is vacuous. There's this part about smashing candy which, I guess, is supposed to be a metaphor for fat people abusing their bodies but... I don't know. She has one single premise backed up with no actual arguments that goes something like this:

"Fat shaming (which should be called "truth bombing") is good because it makes people stop eating too much."
-Nicole Arbour, definitely not me.

Really, go back and read the transcript, that's ALL she says. And that one premise gets a lot of traction in today's world because people don't think about it critically. Yet, it's pretty easy to debunk, watch:

Does yelling at bad drivers make them stop driving poorly? Does complaining about politicians make them any more honest and trustworthy? Does refusing to grant homosexuals a marriage permit make them suddenly straight? Does yelling at a crying baby in a restaurant make the child rethink their life choices? No. Being angry at someone is only useful if that person doesn't recognize the problem. But fat people recognize that their weight is an issue. Being angry about it doesn't change anything.

Or does it? Some people argue that efforts to change societal attitudes about weight, to stop so-called "fat shaming," are making fat people less likely to change. I guess you could make that argument, but I don't think it's particularly valid. For one, there is something called a "shame spiral" which is basically: 1) do something bad to yourself, 2) feel bad about it, 3) do that thing again, 4) repeat steps 2-4. If people already feel bad about their weight, and if that shame is making them more likely to overeat and less likely to exercise, then how is making them feel worse going to change anything?

How does fat shaming affect people who suffer from anorexia? Just throwing that out there...

People like Nicole Arbour and her followers don't actually sound like they want to help people. They say they do, but their demeanor doesn't fit with their rhetoric. Nicole Arbour spends a good third of her rant describing how she blames an overweight family for 1) making her wait in airport security, 2) her getting sweaty from walking in an airport, 3) making her sit next to an overweight kid. Seriously, one of her complaints about fat people is that she had to sit next to one! That's like me saying 'I don't hate black people, I just wish they would sit on a different half of the bus because I don't like the idea of my elbow accidentally brushing up against theirs.' (Nobody sits next to me on the bus; maybe I look scary? Kinda bums me out.) She argues that the child's fat was "on her lap" but the kid's story and basic physics call BS on that one. Even if she was somewhat uncomfortable sitting next to a larger person on a plane, which I confess is pretty frustrating because most people value their personal space, that doesn't excuse her vitriolic attitude both during and especially after the flight.

Which brings me to the point of this post... wait, what? 700+ words and I still haven't even gotten to the point? Actually, this is a problem with the 'stream of consciousness' style of this blog. I was going to talk about how I would craft a character like Nicole Arbour for use in one of my novels. But that's going to take this post way over 1000 words, which means we're looking at a two-parter.

Next week: Developing a backstory and characterization for Ms. Arbour. See you then!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Flavors Which Tie a Novel Together

Ok, I promise no more cranky screeds about WUI (writing while intoxicated). At least, not this week.

Update on the novel: Novel #2 is really starting to gel at this point. I have my outline done, which will probably be cut to shreds by the time my first draft is complete, and I have what I call a "Novel Wiki" written. My Novel Wiki is a set of notes on characters, settings, locations, a timeline, mystery elements and a few other tidbits which I can refer back to for continuity and to figure out the needs of any particular scene, chapter, act etc. I've written a nice, tense prologue so now it's on to the meat of the novel.

This is the tricky part.

Because I'm in the mystery genre, I like to write in sequence rather than jumping around the timeline. I think it helps me keep in mind what information the reader has at a given moment rather than say, "Oh, I would have told them about this in Chapter 6." So, I have to start at the beginning. That means I'm focused on two things. 1) keeping up momentum and maintaining reader interest and 2) introducing the characters and their present situation. Since this is a sequel, I thought introducing the characters could take a back seat in the first act, but in reality I have to negotiate a six-month gap in which every character has changed and their motivations must all be explained. That makes keeping up momentum very difficult.

Oh, and as always, I need to establish the theme of the novel.

"It's a mystery novel, not literary fiction. Do you even need a theme?"

I know mystery readers don't expect something like an overarching theme to exist in their novels, but I can almost certainly assure you that one exists in any novel, mystery or otherwise, worth paying for.

I wish I could tell you all about the dozens of ways I used the theme of my first novel to shape its plot structure. However, I'm trying to use this blog as a mild advertisement platform (whaa?!?), and thus spoiling the plot for potential new readers would be detrimental to my goals. So, I promise to keep any spoilers limited to the selection of text you can read in Amazon's preview, or roughly Chapter 2.

The theme of The Tide Washed Her Away: "The people who know you best are the people who care about you."

There are two main plots in the novel. One involves Jessica Carter coming home after a failed career and having to reconnect with the friends she alienated, while the other is learning about Corinne Masterson's life before she was murdered.

So how does the theme fit with these plots? With Jessica, she has no idea what her friends' lives have been like since she left them behind in Hampton. She really doesn't know her friends because she stopped caring about them, and that bothers her enough that she promises to change her ways early on. But as much as Jessica has stopped learning about her friends, they too have stopped learning about her. They think she's arrogant and self-assured when her reality is quite different. Those initial misperceptions on both sides lead to conflict, and Jessica's pursuit of the truth behind her friends' lives becomes a driving motivator as the novel progresses.

With Corinne, the theme centers more around how people who don't know her are more likely to judge her unfairly for a life she was rumored to have led. Jessica seeks to change people's opinions of Corinne by writing about her life, but since Jessica has been gone during this period she has no choice but to seek out people who cared about Corinne.

In the end, people probably won't even notice the theme playing out. That's not the point of having a theme. It's more like cooking a gourmet dish. There are tastes which bind the various pieces together, but the diner isn't necessarily going to be able to point it out. Without an overarching theme in a novel, the plot can lose cohesion.

I really hope to someday pick apart The Tide Washed Her Away and show just how much the theme is used. Unfortunately, this blog post is getting long and, again, I refuse to spoil readers.

The theme for the next novel is a slight variation on the first. "The people who care about you influence who you become." It is, like any good sequel, an embellishment on the first theme, expanding and adding to it while keeping the flavor of the series consistent.

That's it for this week. Maybe by next week I will have figured out a way to explain to my wife's family why she's working her butt off to pay the bills while I write make-believe... Heh... I'm a dreamer, not a miracle worker.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Writing Under the Influence

You sit down at your computer and stare at a blank page for half an hour, thinking to yourself, How am I ever going to get this post/paper/chapter/scene/etc. done when I can't even get a single word on the page?

I don't care if you're a seasoned novelist or a freshman in high school, I think we've all been at this point a few times in our lives.

What do you reach for when that happens?

All writers want to be the most interesting man/woman in the world.

You know the commercial, the one with the wizened yet irreverent man sitting in a bar with a cocktail in hand, attracting the interest of other patrons (or TV viewers, as the case may be) with an effortless charm. People in general, and writers specifically, seem to gravitate to such a persona, which explains why the Dos Equis brand has stuck with those ads for years. Writers see their beloved Hemingway in those commercials. Hemingway was a notorious drinker, which adds to a certain mythology surrounding alcohol and creative writing. Alcohol is a part of many aspiring writers' "method," "habit" or "process." But the number of successful authors who drink regularly are far fewer than aspiring writers imagine.

I can almost see the argument, though. Getting past that first page is a terrible burden. Before the first words, there is a storm of self-doubt which brews inside authors' heads. We are inhibited by that doubt, and thus anything which might break through it seems welcome. Too bad the downside of the help alcohol provides far outweighs its benefit.

Never film yourself dancing when you're drunk if you plan to watch it sober.

We all know people can't drive when they are drunk, nor can they dance, sing, draw, or do anything which requires the higher functions of a brain. This is common knowledge, but how many people think those rules don't apply to them? How many people drink and drive, thinking they are an exception? How many people only dance when they are drunk, knowing that their skills haven't improved, only their ability to ignore the judgment of others.

How many regret what they have done the morning after when they think back on what they did?

Writing is no exception to these rules. Nobody can write well when they are drunk. You can't write well when you are drunk. Nobody means nobody. Yet writers convince themselves that, if Hemingway could do it, so too can they. But Hemingway wrote sober in the mornings and drank at night, something which adherents to drunken scribbling seem to ignore.

Even if one chooses to use alcohol or similar chemical means to get past inhibitions or to gain inspiration, 90% of the work of writing takes place in the editing stages. That is where the fevered delusions of your imagination come together to form a smart, coherent work. Have you ever woken from a dream and written something you think is profound only to read it later and wonder what you were thinking? Now imagine reading a book made entirely of inebriated recollections of ideas which, when they see the light of day, come across as shallow or even unintelligible. That is what drunk writers produce. Maybe that junk can be transformed in editing, but it is certainly no justification for writing while under the influence.


Wow, I guess that post has been building in me for longer than I've been working on this blog. I started off trying to explain why pistachios are my favorite thing to have on my desk when I'm writing, but ended up writing a screed instead.

I could start over, but... nah. Someone out there needs to read this today.

Sorry for the rant. Work on my sequel to The Tide Washed Her Away is going well, in case you needed an update. I'll be back next week!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Quick Thanks From a Grateful Writer

I didn't want to clutter my substantive post with sales talk, but I feel like a quick thank you is in order for all those who have either purchased my novel outright or read it in Kindle Unlimited.


You see, I set out writing a novel with the hope that someone might read a story I wrote. But while having family and friends read my work was nice, knowing that at least a few strangers are experiencing my novel is fulfilling in a way I can barely describe. I'm certainly hoping you guys enjoy it.

If you did enjoy my book, why not stop by my Facebook Page and say hello? I'm not hawking "likes," I'm just letting you know there's a way to get in touch if you want it.

Thanks again!


How to Do Big Things

Well, here I am again. Did you think I had abandoned this project? After one week, really? Well, I didn't. I might have if something better came along, but it didn't.


"I just don't think I could do something like that. It's too big of a project, too complicated. I wouldn't know where to start."

I've been told by several people that they couldn't ever write a novel for various reasons, including lack of imagination and an inability to write "well" (whatever that means). Both excuses are, of course, ridiculous because all people have imaginations and all speaking adults can tell stories. A novel isn't good because someone had a good imagination or because they have some magical ability to craft words, a novel is good because an author takes the time to make it that way. Which leads me to the most common reason for not writing a novel: "It's just too big."

I can't think of a single "small" thing in life that's worth doing. Go ahead, try.

What did you come up with? Did you say, "telling someone you love them?" Did you say, "going for a brisk walk?" Did you say, "learning something new?"

Well, those are good things to do, and they are small. But, taken alone, those things are meaningless. What point is there in telling someone you love them a single time without building a relationship? What good is a single walk when it's not a part of developing a healthy habit? Learning a single fact without understanding the context in which it exists is trivial.

Did you say, "writing a single page?"

It is confoundingly (apparently that's not a word according to spell check... it should be) common to hear authors telling new authors they need to "write every single day." I won't go into why that's not always the best advice because Jennifer Mattern of AllIndieWriters already did, but I can see why that advice has such traction. Writing every day is just another way of building a habit, and a habit is necessary when writing a novel requires not one large effort, but countless single pages of writing and editing.

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
-Vincent van Gogh

By now you can probably see the writing on the wall. I'm going to say that writing a book is as simple as breaking it down into easily managed parts. Got it? Ok, we're moving on.

It still feels like you have an entire mountain to climb, doesn't it? That's how I felt when I set out to finish a novel for the first time. I had started novels before, but for one reason or another, I never finished. Before I set out to make a complete novel, I needed a plan. So, I made a plan, and then another, and then another. I created a detailed plot outline, character biographies, notes on mystery elements and locations... But I was no closer to starting a novel when those things were done.

What finally worked was to boil the entire process down into something anyone can do in less than five minutes (though, hopefully, you'd spend longer than that). I wrote SIX sentences, boiling my story down to a paragraph of less than 100 words. Each of those sentences became an "act" and each act was then divided into "Scenes." Each act was simply an expansion of a single sentence. Under each act, every scene was explained again with just one sentence. There were sixty-two scenes in total. I assigned each scene a word allotment, then started the next day with Act-1, Scene-1.

Here's what I had for my very first scene (minor spoilers):
Act-1, Scene 1: Jessica drives to a party to reunite with her estranged friends while thinking about the failures of the last five years. 1250 words.

You see that "1250 words" comment? That's all I had to write. Not 100,000 words telling a story with complex characters, plot, mystery elements and locations... just 1250 words. Anyone can do that.

My scene-by-scene outline was eventually cut to shreds, though the acts remained until I began my first editing round. Those 1250 words became 388 in the final version of my story by the time I had edited everything over and over. Writing the first draft, the part most people never finish, is only about 20% of the effort. But once you've got that 20% complete, I'd imagine your chances of finishing the thing go from 1 in 1000, to about 1 in 2.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to work on the outline for my second novel.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Friends as Characters

So, I'm just beginning to flesh out a basic outline of my second novel. When that's done I'll share more about that process, but right now let's talk about characters.

Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is NOT purely coincidental

Someone once said, "All writing is autobiography." I wish whoever said that would tell my family that doesn't mean they have to psychoanalyze everything I write to see if I'm getting depressed or psychotic. What that statement really means is that writing is based on our personal experiences. Even when we imagine the most unrealistic, fantastical situations, we're still basing those ideas on what we know.

How boring would writing be if every character were some variation of the author? Certainly characters must be diverse enough that their motivations and idiosyncrasies make them interact in interesting and enjoyable ways. If all writing were purely autobiographical, all characters would be the same person, have the same motivations and thus would never come into conflict.

The characters in my novel are somewhat autobiographical because they are a collection of traits I've seen in people I've known. I'm asked, every time I write something with a female character, whether that character "is" a particular romantic interest from my past. It never is. In fact, I avoid using any trait from that person just so I can say with confidence that no character is based on her. But while I never copy friends outright, I often incorporate aspects of their personality, history and appearance in building more believable characters.

A pinch of you, a dash of him, and a hint of Daddy issues...

When building a character, this is the process I use:

1) Define the major motivations of the character. What do they want most in life?
2) What events happened in the character's life to make them want what they do?
3) What about those events affect the mannerisms, appearance, reputation etc. of the character?

Sometimes, a character's motivations hew closely to those of people I've known in my own life. For instance, in my first novel, there is a character who has given up a personal hobby because his fiancee disapproves. Here, the character's major motivation is to make his fiancee happy, which makes one wonder why someone would endure a relationship in which they are expected to give up something they love?

As I developed this character's history, I considered those people I've known who experienced something similar. I knew a guy who went to law school because his fiancee wanted him to have a better career, and a girl who took up mountain sports in order to please her boyfriend. I took these people, thought about everything I know about them and their relationships, and used that to craft the character.

Some friends who have read my work comment that they thought one character or another seemed very similar to someone they knew. And they were right! Because that character was based in small part on a mutual friend. Other times, those same people fail to see the connection between characters and people they know, including themselves, because I use more than one real person to craft a single character.

It is lazy writing to completely copy a real person (outside the context of a biography, of course), and potentially libelous to boot, but failing to find some basis in reality can make characters bland at best, generic and perhaps even offensively stereotypical at worst. If you're stuck in the process of building a character, consider your friends and keep building traits until you have a character who is so real you could imagine having a real conversation with them.

Just don't go writing about that one, former romantic interest everyone expects you to. I can't imagine that ever going well.


Just Getting Started...

I hate writing the first post on a blog. It always feels somewhat disingenuous when you're done. If I had to guess, I'd say 9 out of 10 blogs begin and end with a single post. It's a promise often left unfulfilled, like a New Year's resolution to stop getting fatter which ends on January 2nd.

Unfortunately, I can't promise that I will ever fulfill the promise of this blog.

You see, I'm at an odd crossroads in my career. I've just finished my first novel, published it on Amazon (here), and now I desperately want to write another. I will write another. But, the conditions which allowed me to write my first novel have changed.

Last week, I was a stay-at-home dad. For the past few years, I had a job which I could do from home. When I lost that job, I used the time I had left until my daughter went to preschool to finish the novel. Now my little girl is in school, and I have some time to fill.

I should get a job outside the house. In fact, I've been looking.

Part of me craves the idea of going to a job, putting in a hard day's work, and earning both respect and some extra spending money. Mainly respect, or rather, not having to face the uncomfortable judgments of people who won't tell me they think writing is a stupid career.

It's not stupid. It's not easy. I work harder than most people I know. It just doesn't pay well, yet.

Part of me wants and is looking for a "real" job, while the rest of me wants to make writing work as a career. So while I look for a job, I have tons of free time with my daughter in preschool. I might as well try to make this writing thing work.

There are two possibilities with this blog. The first is that I get a job, stop trying to make writing a career, and that's the end of this little experiment. The second possibility is that I find freelance writing opportunities to pay the bills while I crank out my second novel. If the second possibility is to happen, I have to have either very bad or very good luck. Either I can't find any job for an extended period of time (bad luck) or I find that earning money through writing is lucrative enough that I don't need to look for other employment (good luck).

For as long as I'm trying to make writing my career, which could be anywhere from a few weeks to forever, I will update this blog with my thoughts, struggles, successes and suggestions. If I give it up, I'll at least have the courtesy to let you know.

See you on the next post.

I hope...