David Kubicek

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New Interview

Smashwords has just posted a new interview with me. Check it out here: https://www.smashwords.com/interview/DavidKubicek

Writing a Dystopian Novel: Balancing World-Building with Character-Building

Occasionally I’ve heard science fiction writers complain that in order to create a future world or alternate reality they have to sacrifice characterization; to create a world and to create characters would take too long, be too wordy, and might bore the readers.

That is crap. It’s an excuse used by 1) lazy writers who don’t want to bother with characterization, and 2) inexperienced writers who haven’t yet learned to “show, don’t tell.”

Ray Bradbury created an unfamiliar world populated with well-defined characters in Fahrenheit 451, as did Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, as have many other science fiction and fantasy writers.

You don’t need to waste lots of words describing your futuristic world; a few well-chosen words will do. In one of his stories, Robert A. Heinlein has doors that operate like camera shutters; they open automatically when someone approaches them and close after the character has passed through. To communicate this concept to his readers, as his character approaches a door, Heinlein writes three words: “The door dilated.”

Similarly, don’t waste words describing your characters; show them in action. The best way to engage your readers is to create characters who are like them, characters who want the same things and who react emotionally in the same ways. This establishes an emotional bond between your characters and your readers.

To create a dystopian world, find something that may be slightly wrong in our contemporary society and exaggerate it so that it is has caused your future society to be seriously out of whack. For example, Ray Bradbury took censorship to the next level in Fahrenheit 451 when he envisioned a future in which firemen seek out illegal collections of books and burn them.

So you have characters to whom your readers can relate, and you have a society in which something is broken. Now combine the two.

Remember that, although the characters have an emotional tie to contemporary readers, their thoughts and actions must be consistent with the society in which they live. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, at the front of the characters’ minds all the time is the knowledge that possessing a book is a serious crime. They know also that speeding 100 miles per hour down the freeway and trying to hit anything that moves is a good, and accepted, form of recreation.

That’s it in a nutshell. Writing a solid dystopian story is as easy as writing a contemporary story if you follow these three guidelines:

  • Create characters of the future to whom contemporary readers can relate
  • Exaggerate a flaw in contemporary society until you’ve created a world that is seriously broken
  • The thoughts and actions of the characters must be consistent with the society in which they live

Good Luck!

The article originally appeared on BEAUTY IN RUINS on April 12, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon

It should not come as a surprise that a book of little literary quality (and I use the word “literary” in the loosest sense) should top the New York Times Best Seller List, but it is irritating when one considers all of the excellent novels that don’t even come within hailing distance of the hot 100.

I haven’t read the complete novel, but I did read the first several pages. Basically, I read it as an agent and editor would if it showed up their slush piles (i.e., “hook me in the first few pages or I pass on it.”) The opening didn’t hook me because the prose was not polished, the dialogue was wooden, and the scene did not interest me enough to continue reading. I didn’t even get to the porn, which seems to be the primary reason sales of this book are challenging sales figures of such authors as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who actually are excellent writers.

Since I can’t speak to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey because I got bored, here’s a video of a an all-woman book club that did read the complete novel–apparently to the regret of some members in the group. The novel (and I use the word “novel” loosely) has already resulted in many parodies, one of which has been getting much press. Although I haven’t read Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, it certainly piques my interest more than the book at which it is poking fun.

Don’t Waste Time Dwelling on Bad Reviews

It is never pleasant to get a bad review. In fact, reading a review that savagely eviscerates the novel you’ve spent months nurturing is one of the most unpleasant experiences a writer can have.

This might help: Getting a bad review often means that you have missed your audience.

Even if you haven’t thought about writing to an audience, one exists for your book. If you’re successful at finding your readers—and assuming your book is well written—most of your reviews should range from 3 to 5 stars, which is where you want to be.

But every author who has collected lots of reviews has picked up some bad ones—even the most popular books by the most popular writers.

Try this experiment. Search Amazon for your favorite books. If they have enough total reviews, I guarantee that some reviewers will rip them apart. Most of the reviews may be 3, 4 or 5 stars, but there will be the inevitable handful of readers who rate the books as forgettable, a waste of time.

The bottom line is: You can’t please everyone. This also is true of “professional” reviewers,” those folks who get paid to review books and movies.

For example, one criticism of The Hunger Games is that the novel is not original, that a screwed up future world and a reality TV show where the contestants kill each other has been done before—the novel to which it usually is compared is Stephen King’s The Running Man.

Technically, everything has been done before. A fellow named Georges Polti analyzed lots and lots of literature and concluded that every story that has ever been written or will ever be written can fit into one of 36 dramatic situations, or plots. What makes each story fresh and different is what the author brings to the telling. Although The Hunger Games and The Running Man use the same basic plot elements, they are vastly different novels.

Does any of this make you feel better about getting bad reviews? Maybe the following chart will help. I’ve listed five popular novels and the reviews they’ve gotten on Amazon (as of 4:30 p.m. Central Time on July 22, 2012):

1-star 2-star 5-star Total Reviews
11/22/63 by Stephen King 88 80 1,268 1,871
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 96 76 787 1,505
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 247 193 6,156 8,220
The Help by Kathryn Stockett 182 123 4,450 5,639
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain 17 19 256 455

Remember two things:

  • Don’t give much weight to ratings without reviews telling why the readers didn’t like your book.
  • Don’t give any weight to mean-spirited reviews in which readers seem more interested in attacking you and your book than in giving constructive reasons why they didn’t like it.

A review is just someone’s opinion, and as long as you’re getting mostly positive comments, don’t waste time dwelling on the bad ones.

This article was originally published April 16, 2012, as a guest post on Wise Words. I’ve updated the information in the table.

Ray Bradbury Embarks On His Last Great Adventure

Ray Bradbury once said that there are three great adventures: being born, living, and dying. Last night Bradbury embarked on that last great adventure when he died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 91.

Bradbury not only had a profound influence on my writing style, but his book The Martian Chronicles inspired me to start writing in the first place. We exchanged a few letters in the 80s and early 90s, and I found him to be an approachable and generous man.

The first time I wrote him, I sent him a copy of the college thesis I’d written about him and his early work: Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. In less than a week I received a note of thanks along with galleys for a new book of criticism of his work another author was publishing.

My first inclination when I heard of Bradbury’s passing was to take time off and read some of his stories in honor of his memory. But I immediately realized that the best memorial to a man who got physically sick if he didn’t write at least two pages every day would be to write. So as soon as I post this, I’ll go back to work on my novel. I’ll read some of his stories later.

For more about Ray Bradbury’s life check out his Washington Post obituary and his video Ray Bradbury on Writing.

Learn to Write Novels by Writing Short Stories

When I was in college a well-meaning English professor read one of my short stories and encouraged me to expand it into a novel. I wholeheartedly agreed. I thought it would make a good novel then, and I think so now. But at that time I wasn’t ready to write a novel. I’d only been trying to write professionally for a short time and was just becoming comfortable with the short story form. I didn’t realize that a novel is an entirely different animal, and it takes much longer to write.

So I started pounding the keyboard to transform my 5,000-word short story into a 50,000-word novel. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Just add scenes. Piece of cake. Unfortunately, at that time I had never heard of Elmore Leonard or his one-sentence explanation of the driving force behind his writing: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Long story short, my first novel was mostly made up of parts that even I skipped. I finally put it out of its misery at 47,000 words because I couldn’t stand working on it another minute, not even to reach my goal of 50,000 words. I never submitted it anywhere. I tried to throw it away, but the garbage man rejected it. He suggested I call the hazardous waste people. I put it on a shelf in the closet where it gathered dust and dead flies–who died instantly once they landed on it . . .

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the best thing I can say about my first novel is that it stunk to high heaven, and the worst thing I can say about it cannot be published on a family blog. Mercifully, the thing was lost over the years as I moved from one place to another. I hope it won’t show up to haunt me when I least expect it.

Why should you care about my first novel-writing experience? I’m glad you asked.

Regular readers of this blog know by now that I have a man-crush on Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers is to write short stories to learn their craft. You can write one short story per week, 52 short stories per year, but it will take you months to write a novel. You get more practice, and more chances of getting it right – and you learn more about writing – by writing short stories.

Except for my one deviation described above, I followed Bradbury’s advice. I wrote 200 short stories before I wrote my next novel. Most of them were clinkers, but among the coal were some gems. I finally got it right and was prepared to tackle a longer form.

And judging from comments I’ve gotten from readers and reviewers, I did a much better job with my second novel, In Human Form, than I did with my first.

A Friend of the Family Blog Tour Ends: And the Winners are . . .

At Midnight April 20 – in whatever time zone you’re in; I won’t be anal about it – my virtual book tour for A Friend of the Family ended. It was a fun three weeks, but it was also lots of work, so I’m ready to move on to other things.

Today I conducted the final bit of business for my blog tour, awarding two $25 Amazon gift cards. One card went to J.A. Beard, whose Unnecessary Musings blog received six comments, the most of any blog stop. When deciding on a winner I included my own comments, which consisted of thanking my host and responding to any comments posted by readers, hosts, etc. This wasn’t an unfair advantage; if I took my comments out of the mix, J.A. Beard still would have won.

To award the other card I put the names of everyone who left a comment on the tour into a bowl. I didn’t put in my own name, of course. If a commenter left more than one comment I put his/her name in for each comment he/she left. I thought this was fair for two reasons:

  • I believe the people who left two or more comments should have improved odds, as if they had bought more than one lottery ticket
  • It increased the pool because even with the duplicate names, there were only 17 chances to win

I wrote each name on a piece of paper, folded it, and put it in a bowl. I held the bowl above my head, and my son Sean drew a name. The winner was Louise Wise. Louise is the owner of Wise Words, a stop on my blog tour. She also left two comments – the most comments any one person left was four, so in this case the greater odds weren’t that great of an advantage.

The good thing about doing a virtual blog tour is that the interviews  and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until time itself comes to an end.

Okay, maybe I’m being  melodramatic. The interviews and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until (and if) someone takes them down. So if you missed any of the stops, here is the schedule.

Now I’m taking a break from my novel work long enough to write a short story. We’ll talk again soon.

Dear Morality Police, Let Us Choose What We Read

Payment processing giant PayPal recently gave Indie publisher Smashwords an ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape, and incest or have your PayPal account deactivated.

In an email to Smashwords authors, CEO Mark Coker said “PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations.”

PayPal didn’t mention any names, but these “banks and credit card associations” are most likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express.

This is a major assault on free speech. It is an attempt by financial institutions to censor an author’s writing without due process (i.e. – going to court). Basically, the morality police are deciding what they don’t like and refusing to allow others the opportunity to choose to read it. And with the clout the financial companies have authors and publishers – especially Indie Publishers – find themselves between a rock and the proverbial hard place.

One thing you must realize is that books with adult themes or adult material usually are labeled as such so the reader can make a decision whether to read it or not. It’s unlikely that material readers find objectionable will be sprung on them without notice.

If a reader doesn’t want to read erotica, it’s best to stay out of the Erotica section. If a reader doesn’t want to read a book examining pedophilia, the cover copy for Lolita should send up red flags.

In fact, almost every classic novel you can think of, at one time or another,  has been challenged or censored.

What I ask is that the readers – not the credit card companies and banks, not citizens groups with names like The Moral Majority – be allowed to choose what they read and, just as importantly, what they don’t read.

For more information on this topic be sure to read: Legal Censorship: PayPal Makes a Habit of Deciding What Users Can Read and a letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship, and a follow-up letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship.

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY Surges onto Two Amazon Top 100 Lists

A Friend of the FamilyI extend my  heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped make yesterday’s launch of my short novel A Friend of the Family a success. Your downloads propelled it a long way up the top 100 most downloaded books in two of Amazon’s categories.

On the Science Fiction list A Friend of the Family peaked at #26 and on the Literary Fiction list it peaked at #21.

For those of you who aren’t into the digital book thing, never fear. The paperback is in process and will be available by mid-March.

Thank you again for participating in yesterday’s event. Enjoy the story!

Author Interview

In Human FormUp Close and Personal with David Kubicek, Author of In Human Form

Author interview on Patti Roberts’ Blog: http://paradox-theangelsarehere.blogspot.com/2011/10/up-close-personal-with-david-kubicek.html

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

The Ox-Bow IncidentThe Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Ox-Bow Incident is not your standard western. This is an excellent examination of mob justice and its consequences. Clark was a really good writer. He develops the characters and settings much better than many of the westerns I’ve read. The descriptions of western life sound as if he’s writing from experience, as if he were there, which is not the case.

Clark was born in 1909 in Maine. In 1917 his father accepted the position of President of the University of Nevada and moved the family west. By that time the west described in The Ox-Bow Incident was well on the way to extinction in the face of 20th century technology and civilization, but I’m sure there were still many remnants visible in the buildings and the landscape and many people still alive willing to tell stories of those times to an eager youngster. Even in the late 1930s, when Clark wrote this novel, he could have still found many people who remembered the west of 1885.

Not long after its publication in 1940 The Ox-Bow Incident was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. The film is good, too, considered by many to be a classic. Read the novel, then see the film, in that order. I recommend both most highly.

View all my reviews

Red by Kait Nolan

RedRed by Kait Nolan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As young adult paranormal thriller/romances go, Red is page-turner. It tells the story of how love grows between Elodie and Sawyer. Neither of them knows the other is a werewolf when they first meet. Elodie, it turns out, is working with Sawyer’s father on a project to re-introduce the red wolf into Tennessee.

Sawyer’s dad also is a werewolf. His mother was shot while in wolf form–in Sawyer’s family, werewolves mate only with their own kind. Elodie’s father, who isn’t a werewolf, raised her after her mother supposedly killed herself when Elodie was three because of the curse on her family. Although Sawyer is a seasoned werewolf, Elodie, at age 17, is a late bloomer–she has yet to undergo a full transformation.

One night after working late, Elodie’s car breaks down. As she is walking home, a vehicle tries to run her down. Her assailant is a werewolf hunter who will not stop until she is dead. Elodie and Sawyer–who has appointed himself as Elodie’s unofficial protector–risk death as they search for a way to discover this hunter’s identity and stop him.

Red  has everything a good story should have: twists and turns and surprises, characters we can identify with and cheer for, and a pace that makes us hunger for what is coming next. I highly recommend it.

Available as an ebook from: Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

View all my reviews

Love and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler

Love and Other Four-Letter WordsLove and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love and Other Four-Letter Words is a well-written and engaging story about a teen caught in the middle of marital problems between her parents.

When Sammie’s parents decide on a trial separation, her father (a Cornell University professor) leaves for California on sabbatical while her mother sublets their home in Ithica, NY, and moves with Sammie to New York City.

Her mother, a frustrated artist, regrets leaving the big city for an art teaching job in Ithica when she got married. When she can’t find work immediately, she falls into a deep depression, leaving Sammie to take care of both of them while also trying to rebuild her own life. But before things get better, they will get worse, much worse, eventually leading to a melt-down.

This coming-of-age novel contains some profanity and mild sexual situations but nothing that would be surprising or disturbing to most teens. I highly recommend it for early teens on up.

Read my review of Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Help is a page-turner.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1962 to 1964 the novel unfolds against the backdrop of the segregationist society at that time. It is told in first person by the three main characters in rotating segments. Aibileen and Minny are black maids, and Skeeter is the white woman, recently graduated from Old Miss, who convinces them and ten other maids to tell their stories for a book she wants to write about what it is like to be black maids working for white families.

Given the social climate, Skeeter is risking ostracism, but the maids are risking not only their jobs but the prospect of being black-billed so they will not be able to support their families. After much work, Skeeter manages to gain the trust of Aibileen and the tentative trust of Minnie, but the other ten prove to be impossible to get.

Until some things happen.

The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s first novel, tells the story of writing this book and of what happens after it is published. It has been made into a movie – due out in August – which from the looks of the trailer seems to follow the novel quite well. But I encourage you to read the novel first; they have to do lots of trimming and condensing to fit a 444-page book into a two-hour film.

I most highly recommend The Help.

View all my reviews

Self-Publishing and Book Reviewers

Although self-publishing is less stigmatized now than it was even ten years ago, we still have a long way to go before we stamp out every form of prejudice against self-published books. For instance, book reviewers – other than local reviewers in the author’s hometown – refuse to review self-published books. They won’t even open the book and read the first few paragraphs, which is enough for people who make their living reviewing books to determine if the writer is good, or if he’s publishing prematurely.

Once upon a time, I edited a book called October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. I received an average of 240 submissions per month. I had lots of other things to do besides read 240 submissions per month, which would have taken a substantial amount of time. After reading a couple of paragraphs, two pages at most, I knew two things: 1) If the writer was ready for publication, and 2) If the story was the type for which we were looking. That’s not difficult to do, and it doesn’t take much time. There is not an editor anywhere who reads every word of every manuscript he or she receives.

When I was a student at the University of Nebraska, one of my English teachers brought in an arm load of self-published books. They weren’t difficult to find. UNL’s English department publishes The Prairie Schooner, a prestigious literary magazine. The Schooner receives many review copies of books from traditional and self-publishers. At that time they dumped the self-published books on a table where anyone who wanted them could pick them up.

My teacher read excerpts from the books, and we all had lots of laughs over them – until he came to one written by a fellow named Thomas M. Disch. That piqued my interest because, being a reader of speculative fiction, I was familiar with this author’s name. My teacher, with a smirk on his face, started reading. Slowly, the smirk dissolved. He stopped reading, and in a voice that clearly communicated his astonishment, he said: “This isn’t funny.”

He seemed almost let down, as if the Prairie Schooner had cheated him by putting this book on the rejects table.

The reason that book wasn’t “funny” might have been that Thomas M. Disch had a long history of being “traditionally” published. I don’t know why he chose to self-publish the book my teacher picked up. There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, and it is a mistake for a critic  to dismiss a book because of his or her own misconceptions, his or her own prejudices.

Reviewers who have a rule that they will review no self-published books, would not have reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain self-published because of “the foolishness of his publishers.” That’s one reason some writers self-publish. Other writers self-publish because the pay is better (a royalty of 60-85% vs. 10-25%), and they are paid more quickly (many traditional publishers withhold an author’s royalties for three pay periods – 18 months – after the book is published). Other books may be self-published because, for whatever reason, they failed to find a publisher who thought there was a market for the book.

And yes, many self-published books are not ready for publication. But this is true of traditionally published books as well. I’ve been an avid reader for many, many, many years, and 99% of the books I’ve read were published by traditional publishers. And I’ve read lots of crap. Lots of crap. I’ve read fiction by writers who weren’t ready for the big time or who had ineffective editors or both, and I’ve read nonfiction books that did not support their hypotheses with good evidence. I’ve also read many good traditionally published books.

On the flip side, I’ve read some good self-published books as well as some that were not ready for publication.

My point is, to borrow an old cliché, you can’t judge a book by its cover. A reviewer who refuses to even look at a book because it is self-published not only is failing to do his job, but he’s also doing his readers a disservice, readers who might like Amanda Hocking’s stories, for instance (for those of you who may not have heard, Hocking found her audience by self-publishing, then was offered a $2 million deal from a “traditional” publisher).

For a look at some famous authors who self-published, check out my earlier blog post Self-Publishing: Is It For You?

Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy

Torn (Trylle Trilogy, #2)Torn by Amanda Hocking

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Switched, Torn and Ascend make up the Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy. Although each book has a beginning, middle, and end, they all fit together, so this review will cover all of them.

The story is about a girl named Wendy who learns, as a teenager, that she is a troll. Not like the ugly irascible creatures in fairy tales. These trolls look like humans, but they have peculiar qualities that distinguish them–such as hard-to-manage hair, a distaste for foods humans like (such as soda pop and pizza), and a preference for going barefoot. They also have mental abilities like being able to move objects or control the wind. Wendy has the ability to persuade people to do things, although as Switched begins her persuasive ability is in a very rudimentary form because it hasn’t been developed yet.

The story begins with Wendy learning that she is a changeling–her mother switched her with a human infant–and now a “tracker” has come to return her to the Trylle. He comes for her early because the villains of the story, another tribe of trolls, is planning to kidnap her.

That is the start of the story which will span three books before reaching its conclusion. The Trylle trilogy is a fast read, and Hocking is an excellent story-teller. Her narrative is full of twists, turns, and surprises. The only thing that prevented me from giving it four stars is that some of the dialogue is distracting.

For example, when two characters are arguing Hocking tends to use lots of exclamation points and uses phrases like “he yelled” or “she shouted,” which is similar to killing a fly with a sledgehammer; the dialogue is written well enough that the reader probably would picture them arguing without the added emphasis.

Also, instead of relying on “he said” or “she said,” Hocking uses words like “he smiled” or “she laughed,” when it might have been better to say “he said, and smiled” or “she said, and laughed.” I stood in front of the mirror and , just to try it out, talked while I was smiling; it looked creepy.

But those were minor distractions. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the Trylle story, and I think you will, too.

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In Human Form Book Trailer

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space KapowJacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan Bransford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jacob Wonderbar has one of the coolest log-lines I’ve ever seen: “Space travel is all fun and games until someone breaks the universe.”

That sentence sets the tone of this zany novel for young people, ages 9 and up. Jacob – general troublemaker and the terror of substitute teachers – and his friends, Dexter and Sarah, buy a spaceship from a disgruntled alien for a corn dog and set off for adventures in outer space.

In trying to prevent their spaceship from crashing, they fire a missile that causes a chain reaction of explosions across the universe (which Jacob dubs “the spilled milky way”), which blocks the path to Earth. Miraculously, no one is injured, no inhabited worlds destroyed, but in the words of two cosmic police officers the kids just caused a “big mess.” Unfortunately, that mess will prevent them from returning home for one or two thousand years (according to a construction worker when they try to head home), and there is no detour around the chaos.

The novel contains a pirate, a planet that smells like burp breath and has a day one minute long, a planet populated by scientists, a planet populated by substitute teachers, and a king of the universe.

Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent whose blog is an excellent resource for readers, writers, and anyone remotely interested in the publishing industry. I’ve been looking forward to reading Jacob Wonderbar ever since Nathan blogged that he’d sold it. I like the book, kids in the tween and early teen years will like it, and adults who are fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which I am) will like it.

View all my reviews

Please Look After Mom: A Review

Please Look After MomPlease Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Please Look After Mom is a must-read. Told from the viewpoints of four people – a daughter, a son, a husband, and Mom herself – it is about a family’s reactions to Mom’s disappearance at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea. The family reports Mom’s disappearance to the police, and they post fliers asking if anyone has seen this woman. At first they get a few calls, but soon the calls stop coming. It is as if Mom has vanished into thin air.

But the search for Mom is only a loose framework on which hangs a story of self-discovery as each viewpoint character reflects on what Mom meant to him or her. Please Look After Mom is full of surprises. It is a character-driven story that engaged me from page one, and I highly recommend it.

Kyung-sook Shin is one of South Korea’s most popular novelists and has won many literary awards for her work. My only disappointment is that Please Look After Mom is the only book by this exceptional writer to be translated into English. I hope it does well enough so there are more to come (as of this date it is number 27 on the New York Times best seller list).

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IN HUMAN FORM Available in Paperback and Digital

In Human Form

For those of you who prefer to curl up with a good book rather than a cold, emotionless digital reading device, my novel In Human Form is now available as a trade paperback for $14.95. The ebook, however, is regularly priced at $2.99 (but is specially priced at $.99 through May 31, 2011; enter coupon code BN99Y).  The excellent cover for In Human Form, like the excellent and creepy cover for The Moaning Rocks, was designed by Joleene Naylor, who also has written several novels.

This is In Human Form in a nutshell:

Wendy Konicka survives a mysterious fire that destroys her home and kills her father. When she awakens three days later, her memory is gone. She doesn’t even remember that she is an android and that the man known in the community as her father was her creator. And the few around her who have learned her secret keep it from her, misleading her to think she is human – which puts Wendy and the people she has grown close to in danger from ruthless conspiracy theorist Earl Vaughn.

Self-Publishing: The Pros and Cons

In the past couple of weeks two newsworthy events have occurred in the self-publishing universe. The first was when, as I reported in an earlier blog, thriller writer Barry Eisler walked away from  a $500,000 advance to self-publish his next novel. The second was when self-published bestselling author Amanda Hocking signed a $2 million four-book deal with St. Martins.

The Hocking deal inspired the post “Advice for Amanda Hocking From Authors and Agents” on book editor Alan Rinzler’s Blog. As the title implies, Rinzler asked several authors and agents to put in their two-cents-worth about whether the deal would help Hocking achieve her main goal, which she said was to concentrate on writing rather than split her time between writing and publishing duties.

I won’t summarize the post here. It is a good one, and I recommend that you read it, especially if you’ve flirted with the idea of self-publishing. But I will make a few comments about some of the pros and cons that were mentioned.

  • The success of any book, whether you publish it yourself or through a traditional publisher, requires that you commit a great deal of your time to promote it. While it is true that publishers may pay for things like book tours, it is also true that not every book will have a hefty promotion budget – or even a small one. That depends on decisions made in the board room. But if an author tells his or her publisher, “I want to concentrate on writing; you handle the promotion,” that author’s book will probably be put on the list for a skimpy promotion budget – if it gets one at all – and may even make the publisher less likely to release future titles from the author.
  • With self-publishing you control the look of your book – the cover art, the cover copy, the book design, etc. But if you’re comfortable leaving those duties to others, traditional publishers generally do fine design work.
  • Traditional publishers have the weight to get their authors wider distribution than if they self-published. To some extent this may be true, especially with printed books; however, services like Smashwords publish books in a variety of digital formats for a variety of digital reading devices. You can buy Smashwords books from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Sony, and Apple. You can even buy them in PDF to read on your computer. That’s a lot of distribution. Plus, any book that has an ISBN number (which Smashwords provides) can be special-ordered, in case you create demand for your book in areas where it isn’t available (this isn’t a problem for e-books).The Moaning Rocks and other stories
  • Self-publishing is faster, which is good if you’re impatient. Most traditionally-published books take at least a year – and may take up to two years – to appear in print. A book published through Smashwords will populate its distribution channels in a matter of weeks.

It may seem as if I’m jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon. That’s not entirely true. Like Amanda Hocking, I would take a traditional publishing deal if it felt right for me; however, also like Hocking, I would not give away the rights to books I had already published, and I would retain the right to self-publishing other books.

It may also seem as if I’m promoting Smashwords. To some extent that may be true. My book, The Moaning Rocks and other stories, is being published by Smashwords because I investigated the company and liked what I saw (and so far I’ve been pleased with my experience). My novel In Human Form will follow shortly. Smashwords is also up-front with writers; they say that although some of their books have sold lots of copies (Amanda Hocking’s among them), some authors haven’t sold a single book. It all comes down to how well the author can promote his or her work and how good of a writer he or she is.

But that’s true of traditional publishing as well.

Learning To Swim: A Review

Learning to Swim: A NovelLearning to Swim: A Novel by Sara J. Henry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Learning to Swim begins when freelance writer Troy Chance sees a child plummet from the deck of a passing ferry into Lake Champlain. Instinctively, she dives in and saves him, then begins the long swim back to shore.

The child, who speaks only French, tells Troy his name is Paul. Other than that she manages only to get sketchy information from him. He tells her he was kidnapped and held in a room somewhere, and that the kidnappers shot his mother.

Troy becomes attached to Paul and, instead of going to the police right away, uses her internet researching skills to do some preliminary investigating of her own. She wants to find out to her satisfaction that the boy will be safe if she turns him over to the authorities and he’s returned home. She wants to make sure the father wasn’t involved in his abduction.

Her investigation leads her into deeper involvement with Paul and his father and puts her under suspicion of a local detective who thinks she had something to do with Paul’s initial disappearance.

After an attempt on Troy’s life, she really hits the investigation trail, determined to find the two men who kidnapped Paul. But what she stumbles into is a twist that I never saw coming.

Learning to Swim is Sara J. Henry’s debut novel. It is a relationship story as well as a mystery, and on both levels it succeeds very well. I highly recommend it.

Visit Sara J. Henry’s blog at Sara in Vermont.

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Under the Dome: Trapped in a Stephen King Nightmare

Under the DomeUnder the Dome by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this novel for more than a year because it is massive, 1,074 pages in hardcover. But I may have temporarily forgot that Under The Dome was written by Stephen King, who, in his own words, likes to write with “the pedal to the metal.”

Under The Dome has all the earmarks of a Stephen King novel: violence, massive destruction, sexuality (much of it perverted), and a deliciously depraved villain. It also has a cast of characters so large that King lists the main ones (in categories, no less) at the front of the book for easy reference. He also gives us a map of Chester’s Mill, Maine (the sock-shaped town, population 2,000, where the story takes place) showing the major landmarks in the novel.

The hero is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a disillusioned ex-army officer (he has been the cook at the Sweetbriar Rose restaurant for the past few months) who is on his way out of town when the Dome comes down. I won’t tell you what the dome is or why it comes down. Suffice it to say that Barbie is trapped, which is inconvenient. He was leaving because of bad blood between him and some of the town’s young punks, particularly Junior Rennie, the son of Big Jim Rennie, used car dealer and one of the town’s three selectmen.

Big Jim uses the dome to assert his leadership. The town needs a leader to keep order now that it is cut off from the rest of the world, and why shouldn’t that leader be Big Jim? The only problem is that Barbie manages to get a call out to his former commander, Colonel Cox, who promotes him to Colonel and puts him in charge of the situation.

This doesn’t sit well with Big Jim as he embarks upon his mission to take over the town with the help of his “special” police officers. These are the town thugs who will do what Big Jim tells them, using whatever force is necessary (or even unnecessary) to keep the citizenry in line. Barbie and the friends he’s made since coming to town are the major obstacles in the way of Big Jim’s goal. They must be silenced, discredited, and/or killed to prevent them from interfering with Big Jim’s plans. He implements those plans through deceit, general skullduggery and even murder to turn the townspeople against Barbie and, as King calls them, the expatriates.

Under The Dome may be a massive novel, but it is a page-turner, right up though the electrifying climax and conclusion. I highly (double highly) recommend it.

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True Grit: Two Movies and a Novel

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I was a fan of the John Wayne movie based on this novel, I’d never read the book before. When the latest film incarnation with Jeff Bridges was released, I dug up a copy of the novel and read it before going to see the movie.

The critics were right. The Coen brothers version does follow the novel more closely than the first movie, particularly in some key spots that I won’t tell you about. I hate giving things away.

There is, however, one major section where the story departs from the book, and I can’t figure out why. There is no reason structurally or story-wise that it should be changed (even the John Wayne version followed the novel here). I won’t tell you which part it is, either. But it really doesn’t make that big of difference. It’s just odd, and I actually do like the Jeff Bridges True Grit better than the John Wayne version. And Matt Damon, who plays LaBoeuf in the Coen brothers version, is a better actor than Glen Campbell. Sorry, Glen. Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross, also gives a commendable performance in her first major motion picture role.

Enough prattling about the movies. The book is an easy and an enjoyable read with strong characters and action. It is one of those genre novels that rises above its genre. I highly recommend it.

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Self-Publishing: Is it for You?

For perhaps as long as publishing has existed self-publishing has been stigmatized. The terms “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” often are used interchangeably. They are not interchangeable. We’ll get to that shortly. For now, here are a few writers, established writers, who have self-published some of their own work:

  • Willa Cather, author of such novels as My Antonia and the Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, paid to publish her first book.
  • Early in his career, L. Frank Baum – author of  the Wizard of Oz books – self-published pamphlets on chicken farming.
  • Stephen King published the first installment of his novel The Plant on his Website (http://www.stephenking.com) on July 24, 2000 and the second installment a few weeks later.
  • Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs formed a publishing company which published a variety of books, some of which were his own.
  • Bestselling author Pat Conroy spent thousands of dollars to print and promote his first book, The Boo.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, paid to publish his first book.
  • Mark Twain grew tired of the “foolishness” of his publishers, so he self-published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Edgar Allen Poe – often called the father of the modern short story and the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” and many others – self-published some of his works.
  • Richard Paul Evans self-published 8,000 copies of The Christmas Box, which he later sold to Simon & Schuster for a $4.2 million advance (including the rights to a prequel). Evans even wrote a book about his incredible journey, The Christmas Box Miracle.
  • In 1901, Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies of  The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The following year, publisher Frederick Warne, who had initially rejected the book, published a commercial edition with color illustrations. Since then, the book has sold more than 40 million copies.
  • Henry David Thoreau self-published Walden in 1854.
  • William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White self-published the writer’s Bible, The Elements of Style.
  • Other famous poets, authors, and playwrights who published some of their own works include:  T.S. Eliot, Lord ByronThomas Hardy, Louis L’Amour, Walt Whitman, Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County), Amanda Brown (Legally Blonde), Stephen Crane, Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw.

This list just scratches the surface.

The Pelican in the Desert

The Pelican in the Desert: And Other Stories of the Family Farm, edited by David Kubicek

I have, technically, published some of my own work. In 1988 I established Kubicek & Associates to publish an anthology of farm stories I had collected. The book contained one story I had written, about 3,50o words, and 13 stories by other writers. I thought publishing was cool, so I went on to publish three books by other writers and, in 1989, an anthology of horror stories which also contained one of my own stories (again, about 3,500 words) as well as 19 stories by other writers (including a classic story by Henry Kuttner, originally published in 1939).

October Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Mason

October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, edited by David Kubicek & Jeff Mason

Self-published books differ from vanity published books by being of a higher quality. They achieve that higher quality by going through a similar process as a traditionally published book. A vanity book, on the other hand, is a book that the author considers to be good enough to publish and pays to have it published – there are no checks and balances, no feedback from other reliable sources, and minimal – if any – revision or copy-editing.

Many years ago during my brief stint in publishing, a copy of a self-published novel came across my desk. The author was selling the thing door-to-door with the goal of making enough sales to impress a major publisher, who would then buy the rights and turn it into a bestseller. In the first place, he would have had to sell lots and lots of copies – we’re talking tens of thousands – to impress a major publisher. Second, the writing was horrid. It was the kind of manuscript the garbage collector would reject. That novel was an example of a vanity-published book;  the author thought his book was good, but others didn’t share his opinion.
Not everyone will like your book or your writing. This is true of every writer, including the likes of Stephen King; but whether you like King or not, he does know how to write and he does know how to tell a story that touches the readers’ emotions.
Here are some guidelines that will keep you from falling into the vanity publishing sludge heap, only a few, but they are important:
  • Make sure your work is well written and that others besides yourself like it. Give the manuscript to a few people you trust to give you honest feedback (don’t give it to friends or family members who will choke back their revulsion and tell you what you want to hear). Soon I will be self-publishing a collection of my short stories – some of them have been published previously, but others haven’t. My wife, Cheryl, is reading the manuscript. So far, she’s found two stories that “don’t do anything” for her. Those stories were immediately deleted, deep-sixed, sent to Mr. Recycle Bin.
  • The book must look and feel professional. It must have an attractive cover, well-written and provocative cover copy, and a bar code (if it is a physical book rather than an ebook), etc. You get the picture.
  • A blurb from a reviewer, author, or expert in your field – while not be essential – may lend credibility to your book and help it sell.
Today with inexpensive publishing services like iUniverse  and free services like those offered by Amazon and Barnes & Noble it is much  easier  to self-publish and sell a book than it used to be.
A self-published book is not the stigma it once was. A well-written book that looks profession will be able to hold its own with all of the traditionally published books that are released each year. Keep in mind that you must market your book (if no one hears about it, no one can buy it), and keep your expectations realistic – although you may sell some copies, possibly even a good number of copies, it’s highly unlikely that your self-published book will shoot immediately to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, or even come within rock-throwing distance of that list. Although such things have happened, the authors invested much blood, sweat, and tears to get there.

Curtis Brown Writing Course: Not Enough Bang for the Buck

Curtis Brown UK will launch a writing course next year, which the agency touts as “the first and only new writing school to be run by a literary agency.” The course – which will run from May 5 to July 21, 2011 – is designed to help “15 talented writers to produce distinctive, compelling novels.”

Although the agency doesn’t guarantee representation of the student’s completed work, it does guarantee that “every student’s work will be read by a Curtis Brown book agent and every student will receive a detailed critique on their work at the end of the course.”

The price of the course is 1,600 Pounds (approximately $2,533 American).

Although it could be argued that because prospective students must apply and be accepted into the program it is not unlike applying to a college and then paying tuition. My problem with this is that writing a novel is not like taking Geology 101. Writing a good novel comes from practice, lots and lots of practice.

It’s unlikely that a person with little or no writing experience could win one of the coveted 15 spots, and a person who can write well enough to be accepted into the program probably is quite far along the road to becoming a successful novelist. I’m sure this course will impart valuable information, but I’m not sure the students will get enough bang for their bucks.

With all of the resources available on the Web and all of the books about writing (Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook are the best I’ve seen) and the writing groups where members give one another honest feedback,  serious writers probably could learn as much as they would if they spend 1,600 Pounds ($2,533 American) to take this course.

Many agents, probably most agents, will give aspiring writers guidelines for revising their novels – if the agents think the novels promising, and salable – and they will do this for free. An agent asked me for revisions on one of my novels. I made the requested revisions, and she offered representation (she couldn’t sell the novel, but that’s another story).

The point I want to leave you with is: develop your craft, built a network, and – unless you are independently wealthy – think long and hard before you put up the price of a halfway decent used car for a writing course.

The Earth, My Butt, & Other Big Round Things: A Review

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an exceptional novel.

It is a character-driven story about 15-year-old Virginia Shreves who feels that she doesn’t fit in – not at school and especially not with her own family. Her mother is an adolescent psychologist who does not practice what she preaches. Her father is a little less rigid, but he’s a high-powered manager.

Both of Virginia’s parents are workaholics and leave her to fend for herself most of the time. She idolizes her older brother – who is a chick magnet – and wishes she were more like her older sister, who has joined the Peace Corps (much to her mother’s chagrin) and is working in Africa.

All of Virginia’s family are dark-haired and thin. Virginia is blond and has a weight problem, due in large part to comfort eating.

Then something devastating happens that changes the entire family dynamic (I won’t tell you what it is; it’s a crucial turning point and best if you discover it for yourselves), and puts Virginia on the road to making major changes in her life.

The characters are well-delineated – especially Virginia, who gets inside your head the way that few characters do. Even the minor characters have their quirks, like Alyssa Wu who knits all the time to keep from fidgeting, and the math teacher Mr. Mooney, who forgets formulas but who remembers a plethora of old songs that he associates with names (“Carry me back to old Virginny . . . “) and sings whenever he interacts with students – much to the students’ mortification.

Although The Earth, My Butt & Other Big Round Things is technically a young adult novel it can be enjoyed at any age.  An excellent read. I recommend it highly.

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Structuring Your Novel: Lessons from Screenwriting

About fifteen years ago I decided to write a screenplay, mainly because I’d never written one before, and it was a new challenge. I immediately set about learning everything I could about writing screenplays. Over the next few years I wrote three screenplays and one teleplay, for The X-Files (I wrote it  for the America’s Best contest; I wrote it for the challenge and never expected to get it produced ).

None of the screenplays has yet been produced (although I’m currently in contract negotiations for one of them), but they’ve been read by a variety of producers including the NBC story department, Amblin Entertainment, and George Romero (producer of Night of the Living Dead)–Romero wasn’t able to use the screenplay in question, but he passed it on to New Line Cinema. Two of them were quarter finalists in the America’s Best contest (one of those was my X-Files script).

One thing I took away from my brief stint in screenwriting was a better knowledge of how to structure my novels. It’s called the three-act structure. Most published novelists probably use the three-act structure, but at that time–even though I’d written two novels, both unpublished–I hadn’t been aware of it. I simply tried to write novels like the ones I liked to read. I realized that my novels would have been a lot sharper had I known about the three-act structure when I wrote them.

To structure your novel in three acts, draw a line and divide it into fourths. The first 1/4th is the first act, the second 2/4ths is the second act, and the final 1/4th is the third act.

In the first act introduce the characters and set up the story. In the second act develop the story as your protagonist struggles toward his or her goal. In the third act the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion (or, if you prefer, the hero’s showdown with the villain).

The crucial turning points (there are others, but these are the biggies) are at the end of the first act and at the end of the second. Each turning point commits your protagonist to an unavoidable course of action.

For example, in the film Salt, Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who is ready to leave the office when she’s called in to interrogate a Russian spy who insinuates that she also is Russian Spy. This is the first turning point. Instead of going home, Salt must escape the building and evade her pursuers while she tries to find the truth; her life has been changed, and she is committed to this course of action.  The second turning point is when Salt discovers that there is another mole in the CIA and is thrust into a final confrontation with him/her. (Since this is a current movie, I’m doing my best to be vague, and even fudge on some of the details, so as not to spoil the film for any of you who haven’t seen it).

The protagonist winning or losing comes at the climax, after which is the resolution. The resolution ties up loose ends, but make it as brief as you can. If you end the story with the climax, the reader feels like Wylie Coyote–falling off a cliff and smacking face-first into the ground, with an anvil falling on top of him. The resolution should give the reader some breathing time.

I won’t tell you the resolution of Salt; that would give too much away. An example of a resolution that is so long it becomes anticlimactic is Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. The novel is a great read; however, the book goes on for 40 pages beyond the end of the story. Unless you’re a history or a symbology geek, you could stop reading after they catch the bad guy (and they always do in Dan Brown novels, so I”m not giving anything away) and you wouldn’t miss any important story elements.

The second act can be tricky. You’ll notice that it consumes roughly one-half the length of the story. This is where–to put it in the simplest terms–the protagonist strives to reach his goal, but he runs into obstacles, then he has to try something else and have another go at it. Until the second turning point where something happens or something is revealed that pits him in a final battle with the antagonist/villain.

The best way for you to learn this basic structure is to apply it whenever you read a novel or see a movie. Ask yourself when the protagonist’s situation has radically changed, and you’ll have your first and second turning points. Also, watch how writers ease their readers out of their stories after the climax. Dan Brown, I love you, Dude, but don’t use The Lost Symbol as an example of how a story should end.

A Man Called Outlaw, by K.M. Weiland: A Review

A Man Called OutlawA Man Called Outlaw by K.M. Weiland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won’t say too much about the plot of A Man Called Outlaw. To do so might give away too much information, and I hate giving spoilers.

This novel tells two stories, thirty years apart, and switches back and forth between them–a few chapters in 1887, then a few chapters in 1858-9, then back to 1887 again. In the end the story-lines merge, and loose ends are tied up.

I hope that’s not giving away too much. But it’s obvious from the beginning that there are two stories going on. I even guessed the big secret long before the ending, but that didn’t lessen the suspense. I was still eager to see how the story played out.

The author does a good job of maintaining suspense, and despite what I thought I knew, it kept me riveted until the end. In addition to the “greedy rancher trying to force the smaller ranchers off their land” plot, the 1887 protagonist, Shane Lassiter, is struggling with his own ethical and moral dilemma. Both problems are resolved in the novel’s explosive conclusion.

Have I given too much away? I’ll shut up now. This is a great read and a good addition to every western afficianado’s library.

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Images From A Writing Retreat

From July 16 to 18 I participated in the Nebraska Writers Guild’s annual retreat, Write Across Nebraska (WAN). This year a retreat was held in three locations: Valentine, Grand Island, and Schuyler. I was one of 20 who attended the Schuyler retreat (or the Eastern WAN), which is in the northeastern part of the state, about 68 miles from Lincoln.

The retreat was held at the Saint Benedict Center, a non-profit retreat and conference center, which was established by the Missionary Benedictines of Christ the King Priory. It is primarily used for religious retreats but other groups are welcome.  The mission, which was established in 1934, is built into the side of a hill across the road.

The Center–which is about four miles north of Schuyler–resembles Lincoln’s Southeast Community college but with religious imagery and stained glass windows. There is a lake with a fountain and a statue of St. Benedict in it, benches and tables outside, and a walking path around the lake. Meals were served buffet-style in the cafeteria from 7:30-8:15 a.m., 12:15-1:00 p.m., and 6:15-7:00 p.m., although there was a refreshment area where guests could get coffee and other drinks all day.

There was little to distract us from our writing–no TV or telephones in the rooms, and because of the Center’s location in the hills wireless phone reception was almost impossible from inside the building (although some fellow writers reported being able to make calls from outside). I managed to send a few text messages from my room but that was it.

We didn’t write all weekend. Saturday morning Sally Walker, President of the Guild, and Connie Crow, the Guild’s Secretary, each led a class. I think most of us attended. I’ve been writing for a while (no, I won’t tell you how long, but if you’re motivated you could figure it out by looking at the bibliography on my Website) but I always learn something new from every class I attend, and last weekend was no exception.

Saturday night we had a reading. Everyone who wanted to could read from his or her work-in-progress. Readings ranged from poetry, to memoir, to song lyrics, to fiction. All of it showcased the wide range of talent in the Nebraska Writers Guild. I read approximately the first 750 words of my young adult dystopian novel, working title: Beyond the Wall. It was the first time I read from that novel anywhere.

The rest of the time we spent writing. I wrote 2,310 words more on Beyond the Wall, which actually was toward the lower end of production; some writers wrote several thousand words. But I have an excuse. I wrote in longhand (well, actually I printed because I wanted to be able to read it later), and I don’t write my first drafts at white heat; I am constantly rewriting and revising as I go.

Checkout time was 10:00 a.m. Sunday, but we had the conference room (where we held the classes and the readings) all day. So after we checked out, some of us congregated in the common room for a little final writing.

In all, the retreat was a relaxing and productive experience. If you have an opportunity I encourage you to attend one.

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A Date You Can’t Refuse, by Harley Jane Kozak: A Review

A Date You Can't RefuseA Date You Can’t Refuse by Harley Jane Kozak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Date You Can’t Refuse is the fourth installment of Harley Jane Kozak’s mysteries involving Wollie Shelley, who is described on the back cover copy as a “serial dater,” presumably because she often ends up dating Mr. Wrong.

Writing is a second career for Kozak, who grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her first career is in acting. Born Susan Jane Kozak she took her stage name from the motorcycle and began her career on a soap opera and eventually appeared in such A-list movies as Arachnophobia and Parenthood.

Wollie Shelley is a greeting card artist. She’s a good artist but not financially successful. To complicate matters, her brother – who is mentally ill and in a halfway house – has been threatened with eviction.

Reluctantly, Wollie (short for Wollstonecraft, after Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th Century feminist) accepts an undercover assignment from F.B.I. agent Bennett Graham. She is to be a Social Coach for a company called MediaRex. In exchange, Graham promises to make sure her brother is allowed to remain in the halfway house.

A “Social Coach,” as it turns out, is a combination of chauffeur and etiquette coach. Her pupils are visitors from Eastern Europe who must be introduced to American customs. The F.B.I. thinks something nefarious is going on. Wollie’s job is to plant three bugs, each in a specific area of the house, and to report on anything out-of-the-ordinary that might be said or done at the compound.

The story makes many twists and turns on its suspenseful path to a surprise ending. Wollie is endearing as the narrator, revealing much about herself. She doesn’t have the makeup to be a spy – she must even be coached by her friends Joey and Fredreeq on how to lie – but she is committed to taking care of her brother.

The quirky characters whom Wollie coaches provide much of the humor. There is Zbiggo, the burley over-sexed boxer who spends much of his time unconscious and a good portion of the rest of his time getting into trouble. And Felix, who wrote a book called Jesus Made Me Skinny, and is in this country for an operation to remove the folds of skin left hanging on his body when the fat melted away.

Other mysteries in the Wollie Shelley series are Dating Dead Men, Dating is Murder, and Dead Ex. A Date You Can’t Refuse is an excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

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Death of the American Novel? Really?

I’ve always considered writers to be storytellers. If the story had what one of my college professors called “a deeper, hidden, secret meaning,” that was fine as long as it had a proper beginning, middle and ending, as long as it–warning: I’m about to use what some self-proclaimed  literati consider to be a dirty word–ENTERTAINED.

I’ve spent my career wedding entertainment with a “deeper, hidden, secret meaning.” Readers who pick up my stories to be entertained will be satisfied. So will readers who want to analyze them. The two conditions are not exclusive, as critic Harold Bloom seemed to suggest in 2003 when he scolded the National Book Foundation for giving a “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” award to Stephen King because good literature could not be that popular.

The idea that a story can be meaningful and entertain is not new. Many of the classics, novels that are taught in our schools and universities, were popular.

Mark Twain made lots of money with his books (he had to because he also lost lots of money investing in inventions that tanked). Huckleberry Finn in particular can be read as an adventure story, but for those who want to delve deeper Twain is saying plenty about the human condition.

John Steinbeck had hit the best seller lists before he published The Grapes of Wrath, which not only was popular, but it also rocketed him to the top of many corporate America sh*t lists. In a nutshell, the story was about the crappy treatment of displaced Oklahoma farmers during the Great Depression. For those who want to delve deeper, though, there’s lots of stuff to think about.

For example, the Rev. Jim Casey is a Christ figure. Writers of literature like to put Christ figures into their stories.  When I first read this book for a college English class, I took it a step further. An angry mob beats Casey to death with pickax handles. Pickaxes, before they are separated from their handles resemble crosses…you can probably see where I’m going with this. It may be speculative bullsh*t, but my professor was pretty excited about my analysis.

Other popular novels which also encourage the reader to think are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an amazing novel considering that it was a first novel and its author was only 23 years old at the time of publication.What’s amazing is not that a 23-year-old could write a novel that is both popular and literary, but that one so young would have such a depth of understanding about the world.

Some more modern practitioners of literary fiction that also is popular are Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife)

A favorite phrase of many English teachers, particularly in high school, is: “What was the author trying to say?” Then they look meaningfully at the class as if expecting some student to pipe up with the “theme” of the novel in one or two sentences. I always hated that phrase. If you want meaning in one or two sentences, open a Twitter account.

The meaning in a story is in the characters, what they say and how they react in different situations. The meaning is in the conflict of the story and in its resolution. The meaning is in the emotions that the writer arouses in the reader.

It is possible for a novel to be both entertaining and meaningful, and some of the meaning will rub off on the reader whether he or she does a deeper analysis or not. For instance, many readers may not get all that business about the Rev. Jim Casey being a Christ figure, pickax handle theory and all, but they will be incensed at the crappy way an uncaring society treats the displaced Oklahomans.

The American novel is not dead, as critic Lee Siegel claimed in a New York Observer article. His reason: because the public no longer talks about books. This is not the Nineteenth Century. We have movies, TV, and video games to talk about as well. And even novels continue to be talked about, although probably not during the series finale of Lost. The Internet provides countless forums for literary discussion. You can also find book discussions on TV, and many communities have organized reads like my hometown’s One Book One Lincoln where a particular book is read and then discussed in small group settings around the city.

So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

For additional reading see: “Literary storm rages as critic Lee Siegel pronounces the American novel dead.”

Unconscious Writing: Putting the Subconscious to Work

There are two schools of thought about how writers write:

  • Some writers write complete, detailed scene plans before they put down a single word of first draft; they believe that they are  consciously in charge of every idea and every plot twist in their stories.
  • Others believe that a large part of their work rises up from the subconscious.

I’m a subconscious writer. I believe in letting my subconscious take an active part in my storytelling. This was not always so.

When I first started writing I thought I had total control of my stories. A story I wrote called Be a Man changed all of that. It was a simple story, I thought, about a kid who has an unpleasant experience in swimming class and becomes disillusioned about his teacher. I gave it to one of my former English professors, Bob Bergstrom, to read.

When Bob gave me his critique he launched into an in-depth analysis of the character and what was really happening in the story. I was shocked. I admitted that everything he said was true, but I hadn’t realized it was there. That was a lot of stuff to pack into a 2,300-word story.

I forget how long the idea for Be a Man gestated–tumbled around in my mind–before I put it down on paper. But I do remember that it was about two from idea to writing of Two Coffees. I was at Godfather’s Pizza with a friend. She indicated a table not to far from us and told me about the dude who she’d see when she was in with some of her friends the other night. He’d ordered four glasses of beer, set one in front of himself and the others around the table. Then he proceeded to carry on a conversation with the invisible buddies who, apparently, possessed the other three beers.

As you can see from the story a lot changed from conception to execution. This 900-word story is on my Website because it’s my favorite, particularly because my subconscious was deeply involved in the writing. I discovered this on re-reading the story a few years after I wrote it. I submitted the story three times, and it has been published twice–excluding its online publications.

I believe that even writers who believe in strictly outlining and scene-planning everything are influenced by their unconscious minds whether they know it–or like it–or not. But I don’t think they take full advantage of the powers of their subconscious.

The subconscious needs time to work. It cannot be forced, but it can be nudged. Here are some ways to nudge it:

  • If you’re working on a story problem, sleep on it. Turn it over in your mind, and your subconscious will work on while you’re sleeping.
  • Take a break, sometimes a long break. Your subconscious will continue working even while you are awake, engaged in other activities.
  • Be patient.

How do you know your subconscious is working? Because suddenly, out of nowhere, an idea will pop into your mind, and often it will be better than what you had been thinking of.

The patience part is the most annoying to me because things may not come together as quickly as I’d like, but when the ideas do come they are inevitably much cooler than if I had wracked my conscious mind for solutions. For example, I’m working on a young adult dystopian novel with the working title of Beyond the Wall. The story has changed dramatically in the last couple of months, so dramatically that the title will definitely have to be changed because the wall probably will not exist in a physical sense.

This also is why I have several projects going at the same time; if I need to prime my subconscious to work on one story, I switch to another while my subconscious takes its own sweet time, and I check back regularly to see if some new ideas are coming. I don’t have any trouble switching back and forth between projects. It’s not a bad ability for a writer  to try to develop.

I have always wanted to write a novel or short story fast, in white heat, like some writers (in his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he writes the first draft of every novel, no matter how long, in three months). That would be seriously cool. I’ve tried it on many occasions, but all I succeeded in doing was creating extra work for the garbage collector (or these days, to be politically correct, the recycling dudes).

If that works for you, great. But if you find yourself constantly getting stuck on story problems, instead of whacking at your conscious mind with a sledge-hammer, try gently consigning the challenges to your subconscious for a few days.

Poll: Do You Write by Longhand or Computer?

Writing Short Stories Teaches Discipline

During the first decade of my writing career I wrote short stories as if I had a patent on the form, about 200 of them, and that’s only the ones I have a record of. There were many more that I deemed unworthy of being submitted and took a direct route to obscurity–the trash can.

After that fairly prolific period, I moved into other areas, and my short story writing slowed to a trickle. I wrote two novels (unpublished), three screenplays (not produced), started a publishing company (published five books), and finally became a photojournalist (published more than 3 million words). When I again focused on fiction writing, I concentrated on the novel.

But the other day I came across an interview with a fellow named Stephen King, who is not only a prolific novelist but a prolific short story writer. King said that when writers concentrate too much on novels, they tend to lose interest in writing short fiction. I would add that the short story is a good laboratory for learning discipline.

Every story has a perfect length. College students often want to know how long their assignments are required to be. I had a writing teacher in college who, when asked what length a story must be, said “As long as it needs to be.” A story could be 1,000 words or 100,000 words, as long as it does what you intended it to do. That’s pretty much what King said.

If you are focusing only on novels, you may be missing lots of good ideas for shorter fiction.

For me there are a couple of obvious advantages, not in any particular order,  for writing novels over short fiction:

  • The pay is potentially better, and you will be paid a royalty per copy sold, whereas selling a short story to a magazine is a flat fee (although you may be able to pick up an occasional reprint fee if someone likes your tale well enough to include it in an anthology).
  • You can develop memorable characters in novels; this is the part I like–developing characters with depth and reading stories about characters with depth. In a 5,000-word short story this is an almost impossible task.
  • A novel may be easier to sell, and there are more markets for novels–although this is an arguable point.

Plenty of magazines (including some online mags) buy short stories. Start with Writer’s Digest, which publishes several Writer’s Market directories. You can even subscribe to Writer’s Market online. If you write in a particular category–science fiction, mystery/crime, literary, etc.–there are many magazines that publish those types of fiction. Glimmer Train is one magazine that not only pays well for fiction, but also has several contests each year.

Writing short fiction is more difficult  than writing novels.  You must focus on a single, defining event, and any wasted words or other mistakes will jump off the page. But for those of you who are starting out–and even for seasoned novel-writing pros–writing in the short form will teach you discipline.

In the past ten years I’ve written a total of three short stories, even though I’ve had plenty of ideas that I jotted down for future use. But  the Stephen King interview has inspired me to start writing some of those stories, although I certainly will not neglect my current novel.

To watch the Stephen King interview as well as comments from a couple of other prolific short story writers:

Stephen King

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Ray Bradbury

Review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The trade paperback edition of Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, hit bookstores on October 5, 2009, and within a week had climbed to number 15 on the New York Times bestseller list. By October 23 it had peaked at number 13. Since then it has remained in the top 30, ranging up and down from the mid teens to the high 20s (as I write this on the first day of summer 2010, it is #27).

An unusual achievement for a first novel, but Hotel is an unusual novel. It is about the relationship between Henry Lee, who is Chinese, and Keiko Okabe, who is Japanese. The story begins in 1986 when Seattle’s Panama Hotel is preparing to re-open after having been closed for more than forty years. The personal belongings of many Japanese families are found in the basement–apparently stashed there when the families are relocated to internment camps during WWII. Henry gets permission to go through the treasures, searching for anything that might have belonged to the Okabe family, but in particular for a recording by a local jazz artist that he and Keiko had shared when they were 12 years old. Although Henry married (his wife has recently died) and had a son, the memory of his first love has always haunted him because they were separated when she and her family were sent to a camp. To complicate matters, Henry’s father despises the Japanese because they are the enemies of China. He makes Henry wear an “I am Chinese” button so that he won’t be mistaken for the enemy.

This is a love story, but it is also about subtle forms of racism. Henry is not accepted by other Chinese kids because he attends a Caucasian school. Keiko is sent to an internment camp although she is third generation American and doesn’t even speak Japanese. The story shifts deftly between 1986 and the 1940s. Ford’s research and writing style make the war years and his characters come alive. Especially poignant is Ford’s depiction of the death of a community after its residents are rounded up and shipped out. An excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

Ford himself is of Chinese descent. His great grandfather, Min Chung, who immigrated to the U.S. around 1865, changed his name to the more western-sounding William Ford. Jamie Ford’s second novel is scheduled for release in early 2011. For more information, visit Jamie’s Website.

View all my reviews >>

Review of Dear John by Nicholas Sparks

Dear John Dear John by Nicholas Sparks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An engaging character-driven relationship novel. Sparks did a wonderful job of creating characters we care about and maintaining story tension. I highly recommend it.

View all my reviews >>

Signing in the Waldenbooks by Parnell Hall

In this video, mystery writer Parnell Hall takes a humorous look at many authors’ worst nightmare: showing up at their book signing, but nobody comes. Diehard writers–and country music fans–can’t help but chuckle.

Visit Parnell Hall’s Website.

One Writer’s Process for Writing a Novel

I’m at the end of what, to me, is the most annoying part of the writing process: planning the story.

When I started writing, I wrote short stories, tons of them. My process of writing a short story is much like Ray Bradbury’s. Bradbury said: “My stories run up and bite me on the leg–I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.”

A novel is a different beast. It is generally 50,000 to 100,000 words. Most of us couldn’t write one of them in an afternoon. Not even the prolific writer Isaac Asimov managed that. The story tension must be maintained throughout. There are usually many characters that must be kept straight and a few subplots that must interact in just the right ways.

Unlike a short story, which grabs my leg and hangs on until I write it down, a novel to me is more like hit and run. Then I have to catch it and wrestle it to the ground and try to tame it. At first, I have fun thinking of the possibilities. But as I get down to specifics the irritation sets in.

This is the period during which passersby accuse me of sitting around doing nothing or even sleeping. Well, sometimes I am sleeping, but sleeping is the best time to work on your story. It really is. You prime the pump, so to speak, by thinking hard about your story, then you drift off to sleep and let your subconscious do the work. You’d be surprised what kinds of revelations pop into your mind the next time you’re working on your story–while you’re awake, I mean.

Sometimes during the planning process I get a lot figured out. Sometimes not. That’s when I get impatient and start writing. I’ve never been good at just starting to write and letting the story flow–unless I have a solid idea of what the story’s about. If I don’t have the characters and their purpose in the story well delineated, if I don’t have a solid conflict, if I don’t have some idea of where I’m going, I usually wind up with hundreds of pages of junk.

When I wrote my second novel (which, alas, still is unpublished) it took me six months to get it started. I wrote, then threw away what I had written and started over. I did this several times. I’m not alone in using this method. Mark Twain wrote 400 pages of Huckleberry Finn, then tossed it and began again.

NOTE: I don’t mention my first novel simply because it was so bad that the garbage collector refused to touch it–he suggested I call the hazardous waste people.

I’ve been working on my current novel, a young adult dystopian story, for weeks (all right, months), and I still haven’t quite got it figured out. I have, however, just written a clear, concise paragraph in which my heroine states precisely what she wants and the major obstacle standing in her way of reaching her goal.

The paragraph has a character, a setting, a conflict, and a nemesis–although we don’t know from reading the paragraph that one of the other characters mentioned is the nemesis. That’s a surprise I’m saving for later.

Although I usually see a short story in its entirety and follow a familiar path to a foreseen conclusion, I usually begin my longer works without knowing what’s going to happen along the way. Sometimes I know how they will end, but sometimes I don’t. This is one of those times.

A famous sculptor, I forget who, said that he sees his finished work in a block of stone. He just chips away everything that isn’t part of his final sculpture. I look at writing the same way: the story is there, the writer just has to reveal it.

I’m ready to start the next phase, the less annoying phase, and start expanding on the paragraph. I’m ready to start revealing my story. I have a heroine and a nemesis, a setting, and a conflict. I want to find out what’s going to happen to these characters. My typing fingers are itching.

That’s a sketch of my writing process. What is your process?

Researching Your Stories: Write What You Know, Even When You Haven’t Experienced It

“I disagree with the advice ‘Write about what you know.’ Write about what you need to know, in an effort to understand.” – Donald Windham

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably been advised once or twice by a well-meaning writing teacher or Beta Reader, to write about what you know. Usually they mean to write about things you’ve experienced. While it is good to write what you know, you don’t have to experience it to know it.

When I was attending the University of Nebraska I knew a science fiction writer named Cindy who’d had two stories published in Analog. One of those stories had been critiqued by a writing Professor from whom I was currently taking a class. The Professor had admonished her to “write what she knows,” and apparently he was skeptical that an alternate reality was something that Cindy understood. That story went on to become her first published fiction.

Although some writers have  written excellent fiction that has grown out of their experiences, for most of us there is research. The research can range from a little to extensive.

While in college, I wrote a story for a writing workshop about a custodian cleaning the morgue during the graveyard shift. He has a habit of drinking on the job and is a little tipsy, so he believes that one of the bodies dropped off for an early morning autopsy is really alive but is in a coma. I had never been in a morgue so I called Lincoln General Hospital and asked if I could come over and take a look. A nice fellow showed me around the morgue (the first thing I learned is they didn’t like to call it the morgue; on the door was a sign that said “Clinical Evaluation”), and I went home and wrote the story.

It turned out that one of my classmates actually had been a custodian on the graveyard shift at Lincoln General. He thought I’d worked there at one time myself. When I told him I’d just done research, he said I’d nailed it. He asked if they still had that barrel of brains … I said no, just the jars containing bits of organs in the closet.

“Clinical Evaluation” became my first published story, appearing in Pig Iron Press’s 1983 anthology The New Surrealists.

Arthur Hailey was an example of a writer whose backgrounds were almost entirely researched. The author of such bestselling novels as Airport, Hotel, and The Moneychangers, Hailey would choose an industry, spend months researching it in-depth, and then set a story in that industry.

Although Hailey was a pilot, he didn’t have much personal experience (and most of the time he had no personal experience) of the things about which he wrote. But no one could ever accuse Arthur Hailey of writing about things he did not know.

Whatever you write about you can fill in the parts you don’t know with research. Sometimes what you haven’t experienced can be a major part of the story.

When you research, use “live” rather than “dead” sources as much as you can, or as much as you need to. A dead source is anything you find in a book, magazine article, a document, online, or any other place it is written down or recorded. A live source is when you get your information by talking to people who have had the experience you’re writing about. In the examples above, Cindy used dead sources–and her imagination–to get her science fiction story right; Arthur Hailey and I used live sources for our research.

Use “live” sources whenever you can because they’ll be able to tell you things you usually won’t find in books. You’ll be able to ask them questions that will help give your story the touch of verisimilitude that it needs. For instance, you’ll be able to ask a person who grew up in New York City what it feels like to window shop on  Sunday morning, what the traffic’s like at that time, and how many pedestrians are out.

You probably would search long and hard for that information in a book, and you may not be able to find precisely what you want by surfing the Web.

The Internet, however, is a good tool to use for contacting “live” sources around the world and getting almost instantaneous answers. For example, the Australian writer Steph Bowe–whose first novel, Girl Saves Boy, will be published in Australia this September and the summer of 2011 in the U.S.–recently posed several questions to her American followers on Twitter about how an American character would react in certain situations.

Make sure that your research is thorough. Dean Koontz is another example of a writer who does extensive research. He cautions writers to be sure to get the tiniest details right–for one of his novels he had to find out the color of taxicabs in a certain Japanese city.

Don’t assume that you know something; find out. I thought the slang “blow away” was descriptive of what happens when someone gets shot; the force of the bullet knocks the victim over. Then I researched it for a novel I was writing. As it turns out you’d have to use a pretty big gun for that to happen. I mean a seriously big gun. If you shot someone with a .357 Magnum or a shotgun, for instance, he would just drop like a sack of potatoes, not go flying off his feet like he did in one movie that shall remain nameless.

That’s the sort of thing that somebody, somewhere will know, and it’s annoying to be at a book signing and–to paraphrase Ray Bradbury–have one of your readers say, “Dude, on page 227 where Joe gets shot and it flings him over the back of the couch …” and you say, “Yeah,” and he says, “Nah.”

So write what you know, but you don’t have to personally experience it to know it. You know what I mean?

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