David Kubicek

The Official Website

Archive for the tag “fiction”

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.

Ray Bradbury on Writing: Essential Advice for Aspiring Authors

As  most of you who have followed me for very long know, Ray Bradbury was my mentor. After reading a 25-cent copy of The Martian Chronicles that my mother had picked up at a thrift store, I decided to try to write like Bradbury and to get my stories published.

When I was in college I wrote a thesis about the connection of Bradbury’s early life to his stories. I called it Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. Although I never published it, and the only publicly available copy I know of is in the special collections section at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Love Library, somehow Amazon got wind of it and listed it on their site.

I just came across an online video of a commencement address Bradbury gave in 2001. It’s 55 minutes long, so block out a good chunk of time to watch it. As I listened to him speak, I realized that I had followed his advice. I’d never heard him speak while I was learning to write, but while researching the man I’d turned up most of what he talked about in this commencement address.

Ray Bradbury is one of the great storytellers of our time. This video is essential for aspiring writers – for all writers. Watch it, bookmark it, and watch it again from time to time when you need inspiration: Ray Bradbury Commencement Address.

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY Book Tour Schedule

The virtual book tour for my short novel A Friend of the Family kicks off on March 29 and runs through April 20. Here’s the schedule:

March 29 – Meet & Greet at VBT Cafe’ Blog
March 30 – Interview & Excerpt at BooK ReviewS
March 31 – Interview at Unnecessary Musings
April 2 – Guest Blogging at Mass Musings
April 4 – Interview Immortality and Beyond
April 6 – Interview at Writing Innovations E-zine
April 10 – Interview at Reviews & Interviews
April 12 – Guest Blogging at Beauty in Ruins
April 16 – Guest Blogging at Wise Words
April 16 – Interview at BlogTalkRadio

April 18 – Interview & Excerpt by Louise James
April 20 – Review at Ereading on the Cheap
Visit the blog stops on those days and leave comments. There will be e-book (for Kindle) giveaways, and everyone who leaves a comment will be entered into a drawing for a $25 Amazon gift card.
See you around the blogosphere.

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

The Rose and the Lily

The Rose and the LilyThe Rose and the Lily by Susan R. Ross

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this fairy tale picture book King William is desperate to marry off his spoiled daughter, Princess Rose. She is so demanding that he finds himself hiding under furniture (we first meet him when he’s under the bed) whenever he hears her coming.

As in most fairy tales, he invites suitors to compete for the hand of the beautiful princess. Prince Sterling is one of those who applies, and she sends him on a quest to find her the perfect hairpin.

He tries three times before he brings back a hairpin Princess Rose will accept. By then he has lost his enthusiasm for the beautiful but spoiled princess, and although she agrees to marry him, he turns her down and returns to Lily, a not-so-beautiful commoner he met while on his quest for the hairpin.

The Rose and the Lily carries a resounding message: character trumps beauty every time. The story is smartly illustrated by Megan Stiver. At the end of the book, Susan Ross provides instructions on how youngsters can make a crown.

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.

View all my reviews

Introducing My Short Story “Elevator”

This is the introduction of my just-published short story, “Elevator:”

I am a fan of the original Twilight Zone series, hosted by Rod Serling, who also wrote a staggering number of episodes. Because of my love for the show, I tend to write a story now and then of the TZ type. This isn’t intentional; it’s just how my mind works. Apparently, it’s fairly noticeable that “Elevator” belongs in that class. After my number one Beta Reader, my wife Cheryl, finished it, she observed: “This is like a Twilight Zone episode.” So I dedicate this story to every fan of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

“Elevator” can be downloaded for $0.99 wherever e-books are sold. Check my Books page for links.

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.

View all my reviews

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).

View all my reviews

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.

The Moaning Rocks and Other Stories Available in Paperback and Digital

The Moaning Rocks and other stories“David Kubicek deals with the most profound of emotions, betrayal in a small community, and does so wonderfully.” – Lincoln Journal Star,1988, reviewing “Ball of Fire.”

For those of you who prefer a physical book, rather than digital,  The Moaning Rocks and other stories is now available as a trade paperback. At $12.95 it’s a bit more expensive than the eBook because a paper book has significant manufacturing expenses compared to a digital book, which doesn’t. Remember, the eBook is still at a special introductory price of $0.99 until May 31, 2011, at which time it will revert to its regular price of $2.99. To get the special price enter coupon code SH37D.

The Moaning Rocks and other stories contains 13 short stories and 1 novelette ranging from the commonplace to the bizarre. This collection showcases a wide range of my storytelling including contemporary, science fiction, and horror. Following each story is the my commentary on how it came to be written.

From the back cover of the paperback edition:

  • “Ball of Fire:” Jill Tanner’s UFO sighting makes her a laughingstock in this small farming community—until everyone starts having close encounters of the weird kind.
  • “What’s Wrong with Being A Nurse?:” Many children want to be police officers, firefighters, doctors, or nurses when they grow up. Why does Chris’s seven-year-old daughter Suzy want to be a human sacrifice?
  • “A Friend of the Family:” In a desolate future where doctors have been replaced by Healers who practice primitive treatments like bleeding, one medical man risks his freedom to help a member of a Healer’s family.
  • “The Moaning Rocks:” Is the old legend about death coming to town just a story? George Winterholm is about to find out.

…and 10 other stories.

Some of the stories have been previously published, and others appear for the first time in this collection.

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Full Dark, No Stars: Stephen King at his Best

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full DarFull Dark, No Starsk, No Stars is a collection of four novellas that delve into the darker regions of the human psyche.

  • In “1922,” Nebraska farmer Wilfred James murders his wife to prevent her from selling her land, which lies adjacent to their farm – and to carry out his brutal crime he enlists the help of his teenage son.
  • In “Big Driver,” Tess, a mild-mannered writer, is brutally attacked and left for dead, and she hatches a plot to seek revenge on those responsible.
  • “Fair Extension” is a deal with the devil story Stephen King style.
  • And in “A Good Marriage,” Darcy Anderson discovers, after 27 years of marriage and two children, that her accountant husband Bob has been a serial killer since before they met.

If you like Steven King’s novels, you’ll like Full Dark, No Stars. King is a master of the shorter form. I highly recommend this collection.

View all my reviews

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.

The Martian Chronicles: An Allegory for the Conquest of a World

The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a young boy,  Ray Bradbury was fascinated with the planet Mars. Many kids – and even many adults – in the early 20th Century were fascinated with Mars. It was our nearest neighbor, coming as close as 35 million miles of Earth. It had green patches that could be vegetation, it had white polar caps (ice?) that appeared to shrink and grow with the seasons, and some astronomers claimed to see lines (straight lines, indicating that they were made by intelligent beings) which they called canals. What a wealth of imagination for young boys – and science fiction writers.

During the 1940s, Bradbury expressed his fascination with Mars in a series of stories, several of which he later collected into The Martian Chronicles (1950). But The Martian Chronicles is more than a collection of related stories. It is an allegory depicting the settlement of a world, obviously paralleling the settlement of the New World by the Europeans, conquering the Native Americans and taming the western wilderness. The novel also depicts the decline of human settlement on Mars. To help this collection of stories work as a novel with a unified theme, Bradbury wrote a number of bridge passages to ease the transition between stories.

I won’t say too much about the plot. For those of you who haven’t read it, I don’t want to give anything away. I wouldn’t call The Martian Chronicles science fiction. Even at the time Bradbury wrote these stories, scientists were pretty much in agreement that the Martian environment was too harsh to support human life. Bradbury never cared much about the science, which is probably why some hard core science fiction readers don’t care for him. He has always been more interested in showing what kind of trouble we can get into if we don’t use technology responsibly. According to Bradbury:

“It is all too easy for an emotionalist to go astray in the eyes of the scientific, and surely my work could never serve as a handbook for mathematicians. Somehow, though, I am compensated by allowing myself to believe that while the scientific expert can tell you the exact size, location, pulse, musculature and color of the heart, we emotionalists can find and touch it quicker.”*

So if you can get past the fudging over the science and enjoy the fantasy/allegorical aspect of The Martian Chronicles, this book has lots to say and is a must read.

*From The Ray Bradbury Companion by William F. Nolan (Detroit: Gale Research, 1975), p. 70.

View all my reviews

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.

Editorial Comments: Keep Them in Perspective

When I was a novice writer I lived for editorial comments. Occasionally they came, scrawled on a standard form rejection slip, just a few words to let me know if I was on the right track, if what I was writing was any good. I would bet that most aspiring writers long for that coveted editorial critique.

Receiving editorial comments is great, but keep them in perspective. Fiction editing is a very subjective business, and what one editor doesn’t like, another might rave about.

I’ll give you a few examples from editorial comments I’ve received over the years.

“New Beginnings”

  • “. . .  a fairly enjoyable story, very simple, but enjoyable. But it was also one of those that comes very close to the borderline for acceptance  . . .  ” – Alpha Adventures Science Fiction and Fantasy.
  • “Your story is interesting – a touch of Bradbury – but it just didn’t grab me.” – The Argonaut.
  • “John was right that I like it; unfortunately, it doesn’t fit what I’m trying to do with the magazine.” – Bifrost.

“Keeper of the Shrine”

  • “This is carefully and persuasively written and keeps a reader intent on what’s going on, but in spite of the existential metaphysic it generates we still find ourselves doubting the inferential conclusions it proposes. And we can’t make it all fit together.” – Kansas Quarterly.
  • “It had three readings here, two of which were praising. The third reader suggested you consider [changing]  the title . . . One reader said the story ‘is a little too heavy on the symbolism’ but I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” – Prairie Schooner.

MY NOTES: I took this story back to my Beta Reader, an English Professor at the University of Nebraska. He re-read it, and we decided that I should change the title (“Of Life, Death, and Spiders” seemed a bit pompous), but I shouldn’t touch the symbolism because we believed it was right for a story like this (and apparently two other readers at Prairie Schooner agreed.)

“That Time of Year”

  • “This is a well-written story, and I enjoyed it. However, we are very selective on fiction as we use only two or three pieces per issue.” – Proof Rock.
  • “‘That Time of Year,’ exhibits a good control of the subject matter, but I have to say that we didn’t find the subject matter particularly engaging.” – Pulpsmith.

“The Moaning Rocks”

  • “. . . The blending of legend and impending doom works nicely. Your imagery ranges from trite to splendid. There are moments where you approached Bradbury’s October Country. . . ” Fantasy Macabre.
  • “…May I suggest, too, that you think about putting the information in Maria’s legend in some other way (if it’s really necessary at all), because this is where what happens later is telegraphed. Up until then the suspense holds.” – Shadows Anthology.
  • “[Although we’ve already met our quota for this year] . . . the title intrigued me enough that I read it anyway. The beginning could be tightened up and shortened a bit, which I believe would strengthen it, but even as it is it is a powerful story and perfect for the magazine. If it should still be available in April, please send it back; I’d love to have it.” – Antithesis.

MY NOTES: Unfortunately, by April Antithesis had ceased publication, so the story went out on the submission trail again. It garnered a wide variety of comments – mostly positive, some not, but most editors to whom I submitted commented on it. I  published it finally in October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. Also, note that Fantasy Macabre liked the “blending of legend and impending doom,” but Shadows wondered if the legend is “really necessary at all” because it “telegraphed” the ending. The part about telegraphing the ending may be true for some readers, but I know of one reader who was so startled by the ending that she threw the book across the room.

Also:

  • My novel In Human Form excited an agent enough that she suggested some rewrites and then offered to represent it [didn’t sell, unfortunately], while the same novel “didn’t grab” other agents.
  • One of my screenplays was optioned recently  [see the News page]. It had been shopped around quite a bit and even received a page-and-a-half critique from the story editor at NBC. One of his concerns was that the dialogue was “somewhat archaic,” which was true, but I had a reason for it, and the screenplay was readable and the dialogue was sayable (yes, I know that’s not a word) and moved the story along, so I didn’t change a word.

The point of all this is that editors are just readers, and stories strike every reader differently. As I hope I’ve illustrated with these editorial comments, one editor may like something about a story while another may dismiss the same thing. It is nice to get editorial comments because they are a window into how others –  particularly, others who read stories for a living – view what you write.

But the best advice was given by the editor of Prairie Schooner in her comments on “Keeper of the Shrine:”  “. . . I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” If you have any questions about your work in view of an editor’s comment, take it back to your readers – and every writer should have a few readers he or she can trust to give honest feedback – and ask them if they think the the story might be improved if you followed the editor’s advice.

Some things you may choose to change, other things you may choose to leave alone. But take editorial comments in the spirit they are given: as one person’s reaction to your story. The next person’s reaction might be completely different.

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.

View all my reviews

Writing Fiction: Be True to Your Inner Voice

On most magazines’ Submission Guidelines page, the editor suggests reading a few issues to see what type of stories they publish. While it’s a good idea to be familiar with the magazine to which you’re submitting, sometimes this can be taken too far.

I’m talking about slanting a story to fit a magazine, an editor, or an audience. Early in my writing career I read lots of articles about how to slant stories to fill editorial needs. Many of them suggested dissecting a magazine, taking note of such things as:

  • Preference for male or female characters
  • Age of characters
  • Genre of fiction preferred
  • Profession of characters
  • Length of stories, etc.

Many even suggested taking notes on the percentage of the  magazine devoted to advertising, and what kind of products are advertised. A writer of one of those how-to-slant articles told about how he dissected Good Housekeeping in this way, wrote a story for the magazine, and they bought it.

But I am reminded of the late Richard McKenna, author of The Sand Pebbles. When he was trying to break into print, he decided that he wanted to write for the Saturday Evening Post. He analyzed several copies and started submitting stories. The Post rejected the stories, so he sent them to other magazines. On rejecting the stories, those editors included notes that were a variation of this: “This is so much like a Post story, we wonder that you haven’t tried them.”

As you probably have gathered by now, I’m not a big fan of slanting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to know a publication well enough so you don’t send a western to a mystery magazine or a science fiction story to a woman’s magazine (unless you know that the woman’s magazine publishes SF). And you do need to take certain things into consideration – don’t send a woman’s romance to a man’s magazine, for instance – but those things are easy enough to see; no heavy analysis required.

One of my objections to slanting is illustrated by the Richard McKenna story. No matter how well you slant a story to a particular magazine, its acceptance is not guaranteed.  There are lots of reasons editors reject stories, and “not being right for us” is only one of them. If your story is rejected you’ll have to substantially revise it before you submit it to the next editor, and the one after that, and the one after that … And that’s a lot of work. It’s also not being true to yourself or your craft.

Which brings me to the most important reason for not slanting – if I jump through hoops to write a story for an editor, I’m ignoring my inner voice, which is screaming: “No! No! That doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to write it this way.” Stories can often be written several ways, but a few of those ways are better than others. You must trust your instinct. The way you write your story must come out of you; it must not come out of an attempt to make it acceptable to a particular editor.

That’s a tough way to go because it may mean that a lot of what you write is not what other writers are writing, so you may collect more than a few rejection slips. But it is how you write your best fiction, by being true to yourself.

Ray Bradbury had an awful time breaking into print. One of the reasons is that he wrote stories his way, which was not the way many editors wanted them. He succeeded because he was a disciplined and prolific writer (he wrote a story a week), and he started selling a story here and there. Soon he developed a following, and readers – and editors – looked for his work. Many of the other pulp writers of the Forties have long since been forgotten, but we remember Bradbury and other writers who were true to their inner voices.

Think of the best stories you’ve ever read. How many of them are standard, run-of-the-mill stuff? I would be willing to bet the stories that stick in your mind have a fresh, a different perspective. And that can only happen when the author is true to himself or herself.

So my advice is to write first, then find a market for what you write. Remain true to your inner voice, and you will be published, and you will write lasting work.

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.

Should Writers Use Swear Words in Fiction?

Identity Crisis, by Debbi Mack: A Review

Identity CrisisIdentity Crisis by Debbi Mack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Identity Crisis follows former public defender Sam (Stephanie Anne) McRae as she works to clear her client of a murder charge which turns out to be anything but simple. The clues lead her into a case involving identity theft, ties to the mob, a fire in a school lab, and revenge.

Sam’s practice doesn’t make a lot of money. She shares an office building–and a receptionist–with an accountant, her car is an old beater that barely runs, she lives in a small apartment and has trouble paying her bills.

I got the impression that her lack of income has to do with her devotion to her clients, who aren’t necessarily corporate climbers. This makes her the kind of heroine we like to root for.

Not only is this a good mystery, but Mack–an attorney herself–is a good writer. Without slowing the story she makes her setting (Maryland during a hot sticky summer) come alive. She uses a few well-chosen words to give substance to the scenes and to the locale. She even puts in details about the accents of people from different parts of the state.

All in all, this is a good read. I highly recommend it.

For more information visit Debbi Mack’s Website.

View all my reviews >>

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.

View all my reviews >>

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: