Archive for September, 2011

28 September 2011: Mapping the mind

Posted: September 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

There’s a gazillion websites for writers out there — how to write, how to market, how to get an agent, etc. — and usually hit around a dozen or so a day, mostly just trolling to see if there’s something out there that makes me sit back and think or gives me an idea to keep from becoming just part of the white noise.

As you can imagine, there are plenty that tell you what The Secret To Successful Writing is. But when it comes to the actual craft of writing, you have to look a little longer to find something that is actually helpful.

Found this yesterday. It reminded of a question I get asked a lot — and one I’ve heard in classrooms: “How do you outline a novel?”

My answer is: I don’t. That answer usually leads to a debate over how to write a novel. One side is the Outliners/Plotters and the other side is the Characters. I used to outline — and by that I mean plot out — my novel ideas. Makes sense, right? Yes, to a degree, but I found myself writing to the plot, not the characters. The result was that I — the writer, the constructor of this story — was leading the characters through the story like marionettes, rather that letting the characters develop and tell the stories themselves. (I didn’t come to this on my own — I was taught by an outstanding writer and teacher, Bob Bausch). Once I discovered this bit of craft, it drastically changed not only the way I wrote, but my entire approach to writing.

That still left me with the age-old problem of staying on track and keeping the story coherent rather than a rambling mess. I was discussing this one day with another writer, a co-worker. During the course of the conversation, he introduced me to a “mind-mapping” program that he used in our job (which required a lot of brainstorming and idea generation). I was hooked immediately. If you want read more about the concept, this will get you started.

I now use Mind Node (for Mac); the program isn’t as important as the capability. It’s perfect for me because I’ll start with a central thought or idea and let my mind wander a little — a kind of freestyle thinking. I still build a very general thread of where I want a story to go, but once I get that in mind, I use the mind map to let the characters start telling the story. The process usually generates more questions than answers, and that’s good for me, because it gives me a way to get the characters moving.

So, if you find yourself stuck or feeling “trapped,” give it a shot.

And of course, don’t forget to check out the Kindle edition of Enemy Within — download a sample here.


Ok, this made me laugh. Good writing comes in all forms. Yes, I read the comics. Every day. It’s part of my recovery plan as a reformed cartoonist.

I’m happy to report that Enemy Within, my first novel — originally published by Salvo Press in 1999 — is now available as a Kindle edition, which you can buy here.

Former Marine Wade Stuart, an ATF special agent, finds himself working undercover in his home territory, Mississippi, infiltrating a militia unit with lofty goals. When Stuart uncovers a plot to assassinate the governor and take over the state as part of a people’s revolution, Washington plans to send in the 2nd Marine Division to attack the militia. Stuart sees a bloodbath coming, begs for time to quash the plan, but the President sees this as an opportunity to set an example. Isolated and unsure of the decision out of Washington, Stuart must race to shut down the militia before the military arrives. Enemy Within rushes forward at breakneck speed, and only man can stop these domestic terrorists — Wade Stuart.  Written before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 — and changes to American society such as the Patriot Act — Enemy Within today seems prophetic. Buy your copy today.

Read the Publishers Weekly review here.

Don’t have a Kindle? Get the free app here.

Also, stay tuned for more intrigue from Wade Stuart.

24 September 2011: Weekend news

Posted: September 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

If it’s Saturday, it must be SEC football — which makes it pretty hard to concentrate on anything else.

But stay tuned — I’ll have a major announcement regarding my novel Enemy Within here tomorrow afternoon.

No, it’s not the shared last name. HST was simply one of the most fearless writers of our time. Of any time. This is usually where some people would insert a disclaimer along the lines of “if you separate his personal life from his professional life …” but in Thompson’s case, that’s impossible. His personal life was his professional life, and vice versa. Part hyperbole, part paranoia, part bullshit, all real. And entertaining. And informing. Usually all in the same sentence.

Often described as living on the edge, Thompson bluntly said, “The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.

He broke a lot of rules of writing, and even more rules of journalism (which is originally what attracted me to his writing). He never simply reported the story — he became the story. But he did it in a way that, for all its ego-driven manic exposition, left you wanting more and, maybe, thinking a little more deeply about whatever Thompson was writing about — politics, society, drugs, bikers, nature, The Next Big Thing, whatever. Yes, it was definitely gonzo. And it’s a voice sorely lacking in today’s writing in general, but in journalism especially. Nobody can ever accuse Thompson of not having balls.

One of the best examples of his work — both becoming the story and his skill as a storyteller, a Writer — was Hell’s Angels, his caustic, fascinating riff on the outlaw motorcycle club with which he rode for a year (and which ultimately beat him senseless):

“California, Labor Day weekend . . . early, with ocean fog still in the streets, outlaw motorcyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levis roll out from damp garages, all-night diners and cast-off one-night pads in Frisco, Hollywood, Berdoo and East Oakland, heading for the Monterey peninsula, north of Big Sur. . . The Menace is loose again.”

My favorite, though, is The Curse of Lono, which I read, appropriately enough, while I was living in Hawaii. Rarely do I laugh out loud while reading, but then again, rarely do I read a chapter titled, “Tits Like Orange Fireballs.” Thompson at his maniacal, sociopathic best.

I wish he were here today to attend a White House press conference or a Republican candidates’ debate. Menace, indeed.

Ran across two interesting pieces today that tie back to yesterday’s post about naming characters and “meeting them for the first time.”

In the first, novelist Francisco Goldman describes part of the writing process — specifically, the creation of his novel, partly as a way to deal with the grief of losing his wife. Goldman mentions that when he writes, he feels a “constant presence.”

That’s an excellent description of the creative process. When I’m really focused on it, the story is the presence. I can completely understand how actors get lost in a role, living “in character.” I can get lost in the story and feel it around me, especially when I’m behind a closed door and really concentrating on writing. Like when I mentioned naming a character allows me to meet someone for the first time — that presence starts growing from that moment. Of course, this sometimes gets you some strange looks from the non-writing public.

The second piece, by Derek Haines, is also on the money (plus, if you’re a dog lover, there’s a great puppy picture at the link) — how many times have you smelled something that immediately conjures up a vivid memory? For me, it’s the smell of JP-5, the aviation fuel used by the military. Or a well-worn football. The strength of the connection between the smell and the memory usually evokes (or sustains) that “constant presence” for me.

Also, submitted another story today to storySouth. Currently have two different ones out, one (“The Booze Rumor”) to a paper journal, and this one (“The Things They Shouldn’t Do”).

I don’t care what you write, if you’re a writer, there’s going to be one aspect of it that’s harder for you than anything else. For some it’s dialogue. For some (reporters I used to know) it’s making deadline. Or staying within your outline.

For me, it’s naming a character. I’ll sometimes spend days trying to come up with Just. The. Right. Name. I mean, how long did it take Ian Fleming to come up with James Bond? I don’t know the answer to that, but I sure hope it didn’t just pop into his head. Not to mention his other, punny, names (Miss Moneypenny, Plenty O’Toole, Felix Leiter, etc.).

When I wrote my first novel, Enemy Within, I could not decide on a name for the lead character. In fact, couldn’t think of names for any character. Nothing seemed to work. So I started recalling some character names that always stuck with me, like, of course, James Bond. And of course Travis McGee came to mind. Fairly mundane sounding names, but they had a ring to them. Sure, you’ve got your Thomas Magnum, Josey Wales, Race Bannon, Billie Joe McAllister, Rooster Cogburn, Jason Bourne, even Huckleberry Finn. But I wanted a name that didn’t sound like an obvious character name, like Dash Riprock (pictured, with Miss Hathaway) or Dirk Pitt.

I was also writing a piece for Civil War magazine at the time and was researching Confederate cavalry commanders, specifically Wade Hampton and J.E.B. Stuart.  I liked “Wade” and since I had a first name, I used Stuart’s surname and had Wade Stuart. But I was still stuck on just one name.  I needed a name for the sheriff, and one night I looked up from the desk where I wrote and saw an outlet on the wall with the words “Gage Mfg.” written on it. Sheriff Gage. Thomas Gage. Tom. Hey, that worked.

I still take a long time to come up with names, and part of the reason is because I’m looking for something with a rhythm to it. Read the names above again — there’s an almost iambic pentameter feel to them. Strong syllables, good hard consonants. Especially when I’m trying to come up with good Southern names. Not stereotypical Southern names, either (Billy Bob, Billy Ray, etc.). I never know what I’m going for, but I always know when I get there. And once I decide on the name, then I can begin to get to know the character and hear his or her story. Like meeting someone for the first time.

14 September 2011: E-book news

Posted: September 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

Into the Storm: A U.S. Marine in the Persian Gulf War is now available in e-book format through GoogleBooks. But stop here first to read about it.

Still working on my screenplay short. It’s harder than it looks. You watch a movie and, if you’re like most people, you don’t really think about the writing, you think about the acting. At least I did, when I said, “Hey, I bet I could write a screenplay.” Famous last words.

For one thing, you’ve only got about 120 pages to work with. Or work within. Why 120? The rule of thumb is one minute of film per page. So a “standard” two-hour movie (120 minutes) would run the same number of pages. These days, it’s actually about 90. Again, sounds a lot easier than writing 300 pages of fiction. Ay, there’s the rub.

Writers, well, me at least, spend a lot of time with descriptions and inner dialogues, moods, tone, all that “writer stuff.” We don’t just write, “The boy hit the ball.” Sure, that may be all that happens, but that whole “show don’t tell” rule comes into play, and we spend paragraphs describing the boy, the ball and the hitting. Some writers spend pages.

In a screenplay, however, you have to convey all that description on the screen. Yes, you want to know that the boy has a mop of hair and a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of his nose that look like gingerbread crumbs tossed onto a sandy beach, but you don’t have room for all that. So you’re back to “The boy hit the ball,” but you still have to convey all that action, mood, tone, etc. This excerpt from “Die Hard” will give you an example.

Ever heard, “Yeah, I saw the movie. Didn’t do the book justice.”? That’s partly the reason why. It’s nearly impossible to simply move a book, in its original form, to the screen. It has to be adapted, and in the adapting, a lot of the nuance goes away. I’ve only seen a couple of instances of this. In college, I had to watch a film adaptation of “Wise Blood,” which was just that. The book on screen. Not that exciting. I’ve also watched an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” a short story developed into a 45-minute (or so) short starring a very young Tommy Lee Jones. My next goal is to find a good version “Of Mice and Men,” which has been called the only novel ever written that could be brought to the stage without changing a word.

But back to the screenplay. Within those 120 pages, you basically have a three-act play, so if you slept through all those Shakespeare classes in high school, not only will you have missed the “Hamlet” reference above, but you’ll have to relearn the essence of playwriting. And most movies are strictly three acts — Quentin Tarantino flicks being an exception. Act I is the “Set Up,” Act II is the “Conflict” and the third act is the “Resolution.” And if you really pay attention to the time the next time you watch a movie, you’ll see the movie shift along these lines. If the movie is 90 minutes, the first 30 will be a place-setter, then you’ll see the move shift into Act II, and so on. Of course, knowing this nearly ruined movie watching for me, because now I’m always waiting for the acts to transition.

That’s the basics. The format, scene descriptions and transitions, etc., are a whole different matter. I’ve mentioned the format before, but I always tend to overdescribe everything, and end up going back and slashing unnecessary junk and trying to drill down to the scene itself and what really matters. That’s what I’m doing now.

A couple of interesting tweets from Litopia over the weekend were kind of a one-two punch for writers, would-be authors and book buyers.

This one from Litopia is sobering, and ties into my previous discussion on e-books,  self-publishing, etc. More evidence that the written word — or, rather, the printed and bound version of the written word — is vanishing before our eyes. The good news comes in the second graf — e-book sales up 161 percent over the same period. That’ll make your eyes pop.

More on this from E-book Newser: “What’s most interesting about these figures is that the rest of the market dropped an averaged 20% or more. Now, eBook sales didn’t increase enough to make up the difference, and that brings up an interesting point. There’s no proof that eBooks are cannibalizing print sales, but they do seem to be more immune to the recession. Perhaps it’s time for publishers to reconsider how they price eBooks, and stop trying to price them like books?”

The second tweet brings up a novel idea: Could Spotify, the music-sharing service, work for e-books? Interesting concept, even though I have no idea how. I’m still new to Spotify, but I love the idea — and the price (free).