Friday, December 30, 2011

Finally . . . the secret to successful writing is here!

Are you ready?

Below is the secret to becoming a successful writer.

Here it is . . .

Are you sitting down?


Now write.

(okay, it's not really a secret, but time and time again, I've heard successful published authors say that the only way to become successful is by sitting your butt down and writing. That's it. Nothing fancy about it. And if that sounds like work, then you're not cut out to be a writer.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit - the official trailer

It takes a lot for me to get excited about a new movie--unless it's probably Star Wars or something--but the new Hobbit movie looks absolutely awesome - I highly recommend you check out the Official Hobbit YouTube channel (I suggest clicking on this link, because I tried searching for the longest time to find the official site and was disheartened to find it very difficult)

Putting the descriptions all together from the previous day

In reviewing the last blog regarding descriptions, let's put them all together--this is something similar to a writing exercise in Stephen King's On Writing.

Here's what I came up with:

    As the whirl of the frappuccino machine thunders away, echoing to the farthest reaches of the breakroom--where one could play a decent game of football if it weren't for all the tables and chairs--I stood in line, patiently awaiting my chocolatety wonder.
    The clerk, a perky blond with a small diamond-headed stud in her nose, chats with the customer ahead of me on the latest Facebook statuses.
    Behind me, a microwave chimes and the vile stench of burnt popcorn churns my stomach.

Okay, it's not the latest award-winning literature, but it's certainly not the worst either.  I'm usually not a fan of the word "perky" because it's been so overused, but for not I'm going to leave it--that's what rewriting is for.

Honestly, I don't like to have too much descriptions without mixing in a fair amount of dialogue.  In the second paragraph, I notice there is a lot of "telling" so in the editing round, I'd probably insert "showing" dialogue about the Facebook statuses.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Writing Prompt Wednesday - Episode #3

This one was inspired by Stephen King's recent novel 11/22/63

Insert a scene around this bit of dialogue - the dialogue itself can be anywhere in your piece: beginning, middle, or end.  I won't tell you who the characters are (except for one, which is obvious at the end) so play around with different roles, whether it's a psychiatrist and a patient, a bartender and a patron, or two strangers on a train.

"Need to get something off my chest."

"Certainly.  I'm all ears."

"Keep in mind, I've never told anyone this before.  Not sure why I'm telling you now, but here it is.  I . . . I killed the President."

"Huh?  I don't understand.  Which one are we talking about?"

"Can't be Lincoln, you dumbass!  It's Kennedy, who else?  And before you go asking, I'm not this supposed second gunman on the grassy knoll.  That's total conspiracy theory bullshit."

"Buddy, I hate to say this, but the guy who killed Kennedy is dead.  Lee somebody.  Never was any good with history, but I know his name was Lee."

"His name was Lee, but the guy who was killed was an imposter."

"Come on, now.  You're telling me all of the history books are wrong-"

"We're getting off on the wrong foot.  Let me introduce myself.  I'm Lee . . . Harvey Oswald."

**One may think this is impossible, but stretch your imagination for a bit and think of how Charles Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities ended.  Hmmmmm . . .

Happy writing!

Writing effective descriptions

One of the best ways to describe a setting is to use as many senses as you can--and if you can do more than one in a single sentence, that would be even better.

Just like hooks, there shouldn't be too much description.  There should be just the right amount--a crappy answer, I know, but let me show you how.  Besides, your setting is only there to give a sense of place for your character.  Readers want to know what happens in the story.  They don't want three pages describing a certain restaurant or the lobby of the White House.  They want to know about what the characters are doing (Okay, Anne Rice can get by with writing pages upon pages of elegant prose, describing her settings in glowing details, but she's a master storyteller and has strong characters so what else do you want me to say).

I'm going to give you an example.  At my full-time job (I can't tell you where because it's against the company's policy) we have quite a spacious breakroom.  I'm going to describe various aspects of it, then I'll pick out the best pieces to go in my story, using as many of the senses as I can.

Here we go:

Quiet murmur of chatter

A pop bottle clunking down the pop machine chute

The ripe stink of burnt popcorn

Whirl of the frappuccino machine, bubbling as it nears the top of the glass, creating a frothy wonder

Smooth, cool tables and chairs with flat, warm cushions

Clear sky, giving the illusion of warmth despite the sub-zero temperatures

Salivating smells of chocolate, vanilla, and cream from the Starbucks-like kiosk

Faint beeping of a cash register

Thunderous sounds from the floor below, possibly construction

Clunking of pop cans being set onto the tables

Slamming of the microwave doors, followed closely by the beeping alerts of yet another nuked meal

Cheap wire napkin holders with glass salt and pepper shakers, the latter with dull stainless steel tops hopefully screwed on tightly enough to prevent an overloading of spices.

Modern cash register with the customer's order displayed on one side and the clerk's Facebook page on the other.

Office personnel wearing slacks and nice shirts while the warehouse patrons don blue jeans and T-shirts--two worlds colliding with one another.

People reading more Kindles and ebook readers nowadays then physical books

Numerous people checking their Facebook statuses on their SmartPhones

Perky clerk with blond hair, a chatty demeanor, and a silver stud in her nose

A large flat-screen TV on the kiosk, displaying the latest specials and current menu

**These are just a list of quick observations.  Not necessarily the best descriptions, but I can tweak those when it comes to writing the story.  Stay turned tomorrow where I'll bring these descriptions together.**

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hooks - the great debate of "how many"

I once read a recent interview with a thriller writer where the interviewer was asked about hooks.  The writer said that there needs to be a major hook at the end of every chapter, to pull the reader into the next and beyond.

He is dead wrong--no pun intended.

If there were major hooks at the end of every chapter, the reader would get exhausted and be forced to quit reading.  Take your favorite bestselling thriller writer (not that the one in the interview wasn't--no offense but he wasn't as well known as John Sandford or James Patterson) and examine any one of their thrillers.  Where are the hooks?  In every single chapter?  Nope.

Didn't think so.

The key is to sprinkle hooks throughout your book, without it seeming like there is one around every corner.  This may be a piss-poor answer, but there should be just the right amount of hooks, not too many and not too few.

What is a hook?

In its simplest forms, a hook is a plot technique that draws the reader to continue reading the story.  This is typically at the end of chapters--but not every one.

Also, a hook should move the story along, not be some gimmick.  Don't end your chapter with, "And he opened the door and saw . . ."   Only to open the next chapter with, "His mother, holding a birthday cake.  And it wasn't even his birthday."

In Stephen King's 11/22/63 he ends with one of his chapters with the main character stepping through the portal, from 2011 to 1958.  That's it.  No gimmick.  Just plain, awesome writing.  And does every chapter end with a hook?  Nope.

Chances are, you know what hooks are, you just had to put a name to the technique.  Once again, I stress not to put hooks at the end of every chapter.  Hooks shouldn't be what drives a reader to read your story.  If you build your characters well enough and your readers will like them, they'll read it.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Writing in your strengths

Your child comes home with their report card. On it are three As, three Bs, one C, and an F. Which one do you focus on?

If you're like me, you'd probably say ,"What the hell did you get an F in? How are you going to fix that?"

Now this may be fine, great, and dandy, but what one should be asking is: "What did you get the As in? How can we help you to focus more of your energy in that area?"

Too many of us are focused on our weaknesses. Even in job interviews, don't you just dread it when the interviewer asks what your greatest weakness is? I do.

The same goes with our writing. Some writers are great with dialogue--just read anything by J. D. Salinger and you'll be amazed by his dialogue. Others are great with descriptions and elegant prose. Anne Rice fits the bill on that one.

In my writers' group, the members have always said to me how natural my dialogue sounds. It's something I work on very hard, even saying it out loud so that it does sound natural, so for me that's a strength I'll continue to work on. Not that I won't work on others, because I will.

What is your writing strength?



Character development?

Building suspense?


Plot twists?

Find out what it is that you're good at, and work on building your strengths into the powerhouses they're meant to be.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

What were you, born in a barn?

I've been thinking long and hard about what I was going to write for Christmas Day--yes, I'm calling it Christmas.  If you have a problem with that, get over it.  And, I know, I don't usually post any blogs on the weekends, but today is a special occasion.

Several points came to mind, although all seemed to be a retelling of my Thanksgiving blog.

Two years ago, I witnessed a single act of generosity that almost brought me to tears--okay, it did, I'll just admit it.  I'm man enough to admit that I cried.  And in front of my kids too.  In fact, now that I think about it, this act of generosity had a profound effect on my kids.

Let's just say on that day we were broke.  I mean down-on-our-luck broke and it was a few weeks before Christmas.  This was a very low point in our life--funny how our lives have been like a roller coaster ride, with much of it riding along the bottom--where I would dread each day as I checked the balance in our checking account, fearful to hear the word "overdrawn".  I believe in those days we probably had more days in the negative than we did in the positive.

Being broke had nothing to do with the economy nor my lack of employment.  I had two jobs--the same two I have now--with one being a full time job as a sales rep for an electronics distributor (per company policy, I cannot disclose their name) and the part time job as a law enforcement officer.  Our money problems stemmed from our lack of budgeting--something we gladly learned because of a financial guru Dave Ramsey (for those who haven't taken his Financial Peace University I highly suggest clicking on the link and finding a class near you) and our own hard work.

On this day, it was a Saturday evening and I was in Grand Forks, ND, at a SuperOne grocery store.  I had my list of things to get (and, boy, I just got those very items and nothing more--hell, we couldn't afford it anyway).  Some things were items such as toilet paper, which there was no sale on but I could find at a bargain.  Other things were on sale.  I remember standing in the aisles, stretching the dollars as much as I could.  To say I was stressed is an understatement.  We had bounced so many damn checks in those days and even a few came back NSF--and sent on to whatever checking collection company they used to handle these.  Weird thing of it is, those checking collection companies were some of the nicest people to talk to, and understood our plight and worked with us.  Collection companies used by all of the major credit card companies like Discover, Chase, Capital One, and Citibank are not so nice--yes, I've gotten myself wrapped in their clutches too.

The grocery bill only came to a little over thirty dollars--not bad for a man and his wife's list.  For some reason, I remember the lady who was being checked out in front of me.  I'm not sure why.  It's not like she was a supermodel or a movie star or anything.  She was just a lady, probably the same age as my mother.  Probably the reason I remember her even prior to checking out is because I was running through my mind what I thought the grocery bill would come to and guessing what I had in our checking account.  The lady also, if I recall, had these canvas bags to put her groceries in, so she didn't have to use any of the store's plastic bags.  I thought this was a good idea, but when you can barely afford TP, canvas bags don't fit in the budget.

After I checked out, and thanking God for the check clearing, I gathered up my kids and started walking to the car.  That's when she stopped me.  That same lady--who I'm sure of it probably saw me in the grocery store as I contemplated which package of toilet paper was the best buy or not--was standing by the front door.

"Excuse me," she said to me, as I neared her, "but I don't see any Salvation Army kettles and I'd like to give this to you."

In her hand was $40 cash.

"Thank you," I said, the whole world seeming to close in around me.  I couldn't believe a complete stranger would just hand me money.  Some would say I probably looked pathetic enough--bargaining for toilet paper will have that affect on people--but I think it was nothing short of miraculous.

"Merry Christmas," she said, and walked out to her car.

"Merry Christmas."

My kids were speechless for several minutes as I mentally picked myself off the floor and collected myself.  I barely remember walking out to my car.  I called my wife (on a cheap Nokia cell phone nonetheless; no iPhone or SmartPhone for us) and said to her, "Do you believe in miracles?"

I told her what happened.

We both cried.

To this day, when I talk about being generous to others, my kids will ask me, "Like what that lady did to us?"

Yes, that's exactly what I mean.

Okay, $40 doesn't seem like much, but when you have nothing--and these were days when I'd go to the bank to take out $20 right after I just got paid from my two jobs and discovered my paycheck barely covered what we were overdrawn on--anything will help.

So this Christmas season, remember those who don't have much and are working their tails off just to make ends meet.  And especially remember the origin of this holiday . . . the one born in a barn.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Turning the artist into a businessperson - Part 2

Need an example of an artist turned businessperson?

One of the writing podcasts I listen to quite regularly is Writing Excuses.

On it are four authors, one of whom is a webcartoonist named Howard Tayler who tells quite a compelling story of an artist turned businessperson.  He's been writing his Schlock Mercenary webcomic full time since June 2000, all with the dogged determination and motivation that any businessperson can muster.  Very impressive.

Another example?  Read the biography of your favorite author.

Turning the artist into a businessperson

I am a writer.

Therefore, I am also an artist, with the medium of my craft being words instead of paint and a blank canvas.  Words that are molded into sentences, scenes, chapters, short stories, novellas, and novels.

Artists have a tendency to feel that their art has to be created in their own time, with no motivation to set even a deadline for its completion.  But if that artist wants to make a living at their craft, they need to wear at least two different hats.

One is the creation hat.  This is where the work gets done--although most starving ones don't view their craft as work.  If you want to make a living at it, you must get in the mindset that it's your job and you need to work at it.  I consider writing as my second job--okay, my third job, as I already have two jobs, one FT and another PT.

The second is the business hat.  This is where you need to get your mindset of treating your craft as a business.  I've spent a number of blogs exploring this notion, but let's take it a step further.  Set a deadline for yourself to complete it.  Make the deadline both realistic (subjective, I know) and difficult.  Meaning, difficult to achieve unless one puts a little bit of elbow grease--in other words, W.O.R.K.  And when I say realistic, don't say you'll complete it in two weeks.  Unless I wrote twenty hours a day, I'm not sure I could write over 6,000 words in a single day while juggling everything else in my life right now--that would be close to 30 pages . . . something I've only done a handful of times.  Honestly.

If I say I'll set a deadline of two years to complete my 85,000 word novel, that's only around 116 words a day.  But if I say I'll do it in six months, that's a little over 467 words a day--not even the minimum specified in NaNoWriMo.  To set a six month deadline may be enough for you and I'm okay with that.

Personally, I love holidays.  Any holiday.  I may say, I'll finish my novel by Memorial Day or Labor Day or Christmas (or Halloween, if it's horror).  Holidays are a perfect milestone, but really any day will do.

Setting a deadline to complete your art is a great start to getting yourself in the mindset of a businessperson.

Then, once the deadline has been set (both realistic and difficult), get to work.

Because working is the only way to turn your art into a way of life.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Use your favorite author as an inspiration, not a boundary

There is one author out there who's name evokes emotions of horror, and his name is Stephen King.

I've been reading Mr. King since I was in seventh grade, when my cousin Derek loaned me Salem's Lot and Cujo.  Ever since, I've wanted to be like him, to share in the same level of success.  Because isn't that what we all want?

But that is the wrong goal to have.  It reminds me of the story of Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile.  The four-minute mile, in the field of running, was seen as an unachievable goal.  Runners would get close, but never run faster than it.  Until Mr. Bannister did it in May of 1954.  Not long afterwards, other runners broke the once unachievable record because it was proved that it can be done.

Everyone has someone who already has achieved a level of success that they want to be.  But I challenge you to think beyond their success . . . and achieve your own.  Be greater than that person.  Be the best you can be--don't compare yourself with anyone else, regardless of their success.  Don't get me wrong.  It's okay to be inspired by them.  Just don't think of their success as the pinnacle, the very top anyone can achieve.

I may never achieve the level of success Stephen King has achieved, but I'm going to give it one hell of a shot.  One thing I must stress, I don't view Stephen King--or any other successful writer--as my nemesis.  I think all writers should strive to be the best they can be, because we're all in a war against illiteracy.  And the better stories we create, the more people will read.  And the more people will read . . we win.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Writing Prompt Wednesday - Episode #2

Today's writing prompt is to stretch your dialogue skills.

Write a scene using dialogue only between a husband and wife.  There will be no dialogue tags (he said, she said) to start with, just strict dialogue.  Make sure the "voices" are inherently male and female, and don't forget to insert conflict into their conversation.

Once you're done, insert the dialogue tags and other descriptions of the scene . . . with the female on your "male voice" and a male on your "female voice."  This should make for an interesting gender role reversal exchange.

Happy writing!

How can I writer sacrifice reading time?

In yesterday's blog, I asked what one would need to sacrifice in order to win.  One of the things I mentioned was reading.

But, Mark, I'm a writer.  Writers can't possibly give up reading.

True, but one may have to cut back on their reading.  When I was in college, someone mentioned that one needs to spend an hour of writing to every hour of reading.  I think, for the professor, he was stressing the importance of continual reading.  But a one-to-one ratio is extremely high.

Famed motivational speaker and author Earl Nightingale, in his Lead The Field audio program, prescribed that one has to always be learning.  He said that if you devote 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week, that would equal about 130 hours of learning towards your specific field.  How much time does one spend in college to get a degree?  I mean, actual classroom learning?  It pales in comparison.  What if you devoted 30-60 minutes a day to reading and the rest of your time--time that is set aside to working on your craft--writing?

I'm not saying to completely eliminate reading altogether.  That would be silly.  But instead of reading for 3-4 hours a day, chop that down and devote the other time to writing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Follow your dreams - but first, let's sacrifice something

What are you willing to give up in order to follow your dreams and succeed?

Watching TV?  Playing video games?  Reading, even?  Sitting your fat butt in the recliner, working on countless Sudoku puzzles?  Listening to music or the mindless political drones on the radio or 24/7 cable news channel?

Whatever it may be, you will have to sacrifice something in order to win.  Let me say it again: you WILL have to sacrifice something.  It is a must.  If you don't, whatever that thing is that's getting in the way is more important than your success.

But, Mark, come on.  I need to watch the next Law and Order and then Pawn Stars.  Oh, I can't forget about the five hours of reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond.  Whatever will I do with my life if I can't watch them?

If that sounds familiar, then watching TV is far more important than getting your life in order and accomplishing something that only less than 5% of the population is willing to do.

I challenge you.  Be the 5% and succeed.

Who knows, maybe you'll end up better than the 5% and be one of the so-called 1%.  Just think what good you can do in the world if you accomplished that level of success.

Examine your day and find out what's blocking you, what keeps you procrastinating . . . then step over that wall (because it's a short wall) and go what it is you are meant to do.

Monday, December 19, 2011

How I wrote the thriller "Beholder's Eye"

There is a fallacy in creative writing that in specific genres one has to outline.  Thrillers and mysteries are both genres that staunch outliners will say that these styles of stories need to be outlined or else they won't be any good.


Case in point is Stephen King--even though he writes horror genre mostly, many of his stories delve into the mystery and thriller genres as well.

Okay, okay.  Stephen King can do it, but he has to be it.

Beholder's Eye was written entirely without an outline.  In fact, when I first wrote it, I didn't even know who the killer was--how odd is that!  Halfway through the book, when I discovered who the killer really was, I did go back and tweak and foreshadow some of the earlier chapters, but hell that's what editing is for.

How about mystery writers?  I read a book called They Wrote The Book: Thirteen Women Mystery Writers Tell All  It's a fascinating read, and it's funny to note that some of these mystery writers are outliners--and are adamant that this is the only way to go--and others who discover the story as it unfolds.

Once again, I have to tell you that I do not outline but if you need to, go for it.  Every writer is different, including you.  Do what works well for you.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What not to do with a thriller

Thrillers are stories that keep you on the edge of your seat, with suspenseful tension, but how does one accomplish this?

One could write hundreds--if not thousands--of pages on this topic, but let me use a metaphor to show you.

The tension in your story is a lot like fishing.  When you snag that big fish, you don't just reel it in with all the tension and strength you can muster.  Your line will break and the fish will be gone.  The best way is to keep the tension on at times, while other times you let up, allowing the fish/reader to take a breather.

The same goes with your thriller.  Pull the tension too tight and you'll lose the reader, wearing them out.  Keep the tension too loose and your reader will go do something else.

Read up on your favorite thriller authors and see how they accomplish this feat on tension.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The price of success - who owes you

Who's responsible for your success?

Why did you succeed while 95% of others failed?

Who failed to succumb to procrastination (most of the time) and worked for hours on end, with no guarantee that you'll succeed?

Who set goals within a specified timeframe and met those goals?

The path to success is filled with pitfalls, but nothing that hard work and time can't conquer.  There is no such thing as an overnight success.  Most so-called overnight successes took ten to twenty years to achieve.  Very, very few were able to do it in less than that--and those who did never seemed to last.

I've read most of the works of Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, J. K. Rowling (okay, I've read the entire Harry Potter series and even her other "little" books), and Anne Rice, just to name a few.  What do these authors owe me?  Nothing.  They've all worked hard, put in the time, and achieved great success.  But do they owe me anything?  Nope.  Do they owe anyone else?  Nope, so get over it.

Now get out of the mud of procrastination and make something of yourself.

Do something.

Achieve something.

Excel at what you're good at, what you were meant to do.

And do it today.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New feature - Writing Prompt Wednesday - Episode #1

Welcome to the newest feature of this blog, which I have titled Writing Prompt Wednesday.

On one of my favorite fiction writing podcasts Writing Excuses they always end their 15-minute show with a writing prompt.  For a while now, I've thought this was sort of silly because there was no way I was going to participate in this when I had a novel I was working on.  Then, in a flash of inspiration, I realized the importance of it.  It gets you to write.

Pretty simple, huh?

Back in college, I obtained my second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and one of the things my TKD masters (now Grandmasters Spencer Brandt and Cindy Brandt) stressed was learning the basics.  Even in the higher belts, it was very important to master the very basics before advancing to more complicated techniques.  Because that is what an advanced more is, a series of basic moves.

The same goes with writing.  The writing prompts may seem silly, but it gets you out of your comfort zone and forces you to write, even if it's not for your upcoming bestseller.

Ready?  Here we go.

This week's writing prompt is:

Write a scene where you attend a potluck supper . . . and everyone brought the same thing.

Happy writing!

When is a story good enough?

Bottom line: a story is probably never good enough.  But the real question that needs to be asked is: when is it good enough to get published?

This is something all writers struggle with, from amatuer and professional.  The difference is the professional writer has a team of editors and readers who can help with this process.  For the rest of us, we need to write and re-write and re-write and re-write . . . all the while relying on no one else but ourselves.

I've been working on Beholder's Eye for several years now (harboring a guess at around 2002 or 2003 when the first draft was written) but it hasn't all been for BE.  I wrote a 900-page fantasy epic right afterwards--yes, I went from horror on my first three novels, a thriller on the fourth, and the fifth is fantasy . . . phew!--so my time hasn't been dedicated to this one book.  I've also written the beginning bones to about two dozen other novels and several short stories.

But I have come back to it from time to time.  Then, in April 2010, our little library in Red Lake Falls was honored to have a literary genius Ian Graham Leask speak on the publishing industry and even took questions from each and every one of us.  I asked him about thrillers.  He said that thrillers, unlike other genres like fantasy, are typically time-sensitive.  He asked me to go back through my thriller and update things to see how "timely" they are.  This made a world of difference.  In the original drafts, my cops were using paper case files when in fact they're should be using something more modern and digital.

Back to the original question on when a story is good enough for publication . . . is entirely up to other readers and literary agents/editors.  Try your story out on a writers' group.  Nowadays, I read a story so often until it "sounds" as good as it's going to get, chiseling off all the little bumps from my literary sculpture.

And, if all else fails, try write something else.  You should always be writing.  Keep in mind, Stephen King didn't publish the first book he wrote either.  Carrie was his third.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Show vs. Tell - a quick example of a tell

A perfect example of when to tell something, in the old adage of showing vs. telling, is from Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire.  In fact, it's in the opening lines:

"I see . . ." said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.

The "tell" is that the subject is a vampire.  Anne didn't say it was a man with white, smooth skin, almost like scupted stone.  She does this on the second page, but her opening lines tell us that this character is indeed a vampire.  We're not guessing here.  We're jumping right into who the main character is, no questions asked.

Most of the time it's good to show instead of tell, but in this case it serves a far greater purpose.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Read me a story, Daddy

One of the best ways I know of to help shape your story in the editing stage is by reading it out loud.

But I take it to the next level and I also record it.

Hearing your story out loud is electrifying, and if you find yourself stumbling over some parts, changes are someone else will too.

Don't like to read your story out loud or if you have a speech disability that affects this?  No problem.  Give it to someone else to read out loud to you.  Or record them reading it (if I could get Jim Dale--the voice magician behind the Harry Potter audiobooks--to do mine, that would be a dream come true).

This will even help with your dialogue, to see if it even sounds realistic.

I do this at the editing stage, as I mentioned before.  This is particularly useful right near the end when I think it's about as perfect as I can get it.  This would be more for micro-level editing instead of macro-level.  Then again, I've caught a few macro-level revisions needed too.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Final key to greatness

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, talks about what he calls the "Hedgehog Concept."

He devotes an entire chapter to this subject, in great detail, and even though I will not do it justice here, I will do my best to simplify it in terms of my writing.

Picture three interlocking circles, like the Olympic rings except there are three instead of five.  The first circle represents what you are passionate about.  What drives you, what is your "why."  The next circle is what is one thing--just one--that you could potentially be the best in the world.  Align this with your passion, of course.  Lastly, you need to be able to make money at it.  There has to be an economic value attached to it.

Me, I am passionate about writing.  I want to be one of the best in the world (these are big shoes to fill, but even if I never do it--because it's hard to compete with heavyweights like Charles Dickens and Shakespeare, and of course there's Stephen King and J. K. Rowling to contend with too--I can say I gave it one hell of a shot).  Lastly, one can make a great deal of money doing it.

Take Tiger Woods.  He is passionate about golf.  He is one of the best in the world.  And, he has made a great deal of money doing it.

Okay, take John Q. Publish (second-cousin to John Q. Public).  He loves to sit on his ass, all day long, and watch TV.  One could say he's passionate about it--most would call it laziness.  Best in the world?  Let's not even go there, because he can't make any money doing it.  Now, if we were to turn this on its head and say he's passionate about designing websites for people, now we can turn the hedgehog concept into reality for this one.

Do the one thing you're passionate about, drive yourself to perform with excellence, and you'll be successful.  You'll be . . . great.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Stephen King writes horror novels.

John Grisham writes legal thrillers.

Tom Clancy writes military/political thrillers.

Isaac Asimov wrote science fiction.

J. K. Rowling writes YA fantasy novels.

Robert Jordan and J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in the fantasy genre.

Terry Brooks writes fantasy novels.

Danielle Steel writes romance novels.

Agatha Christie wrote mystery novels.

John Sandford writes thrillers.

Funny how when one works and perfects their craft, they become known for it.  Now, some of these writers (and countless others I haven't named) do write in other genres.  I love Stephen King's stories, yet some of his best ones in my opinion are not horror (The Green Mile, On Writing).  The same with John Grisham (A Painted House, Bleechers, Playing For Pizza).

Jim Collins in his book Good To Great talks about simplicity: getting good, being the best, at one thing.  Do something well enough, with excellence, and you will define that genre or that segment of business.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Jim Collins picturized momentum, in his book Good to Great, as a flywheel.

Imagine the flywheel as being gigantic gear, meant to be moved in one direction.  Push your shoulder into it, heaving with all your might, until it starts to roll.  You keep pushing in the same direction, again and again, and the flywheel picks up more speed.  Before too long, using the same amount of energy, you can keep it going in that same direction.  Using that momentum is one of the keys to greatness.

Work at something long enough, for weeks, months, years, and decades, and you're bound to change the world.  How much of the world is up to you and how much momentum you use.  There are people I've met who try something new every other week.  Sound familiar?  Guess where they are a year from now.  You guessed it: right in the same place where they started.  If you stick to one thing long enough, you'll get good.

And then, over time, you'll get great.

Find your why, as Simon Sinek says, and put it into action.  Today.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Start a to-NOT-do list

Of all the concepts laid out by Jim Collins and his book Good to Great this one had the most profound affect on me.

Practically every business/success book or course out there prescribes the notion of having a to-do list.  This is typically at the heart of every time management book.  There's nothing wrong with this, because it lays out what needs to be done.  I use a to-do list all the time.

What Jim Collins prescribed was a "stop doing" list or a to-NOT-do list.

On one's to-NOT-do list may be as follows:

I will NOT watch 8 hours of mind-numbing television a day (or 2 or 4 or whatever your number of hours may be).

I will NOT oversleep and not write for the 1 or 2 hours I had planned in the morning.

I will NOT not write something every single day.

I will NOT drive to work listening to the latest political blow-hards on the radio or my favorite 80's rock tunes I've listened to and WILL listen to something inspiring (for me it's either a podcast by Dave Ramsey, Dan Miller, Earl Nightingale, or Writing Excuses).

I will NOT spend my breaks and lunches at work checking my Facebook status and not working on my book.

I will NOT waste my time on mind-numbing tasks on the Internet when I planned on writing or working on my blog.

I will NOT plan one weekday where I don't have at least one blog posting.

I will NOT watch the news every single day.  A 30-minute local news broadcast is fine, but not the hours and hours that Fox News/CNN/MSNBC/Etc. bring to us in their 24/7 news cycle.  Bad news is everywhere.  I don't need to fill my mind with it.

I will NOT not take a break every once and a while, simply because it gives my body and mind time to rest.

I will NOT physically devestate my body or medically devestate my mind through poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and negative attitudes.

I will NOT start my day wishing it was a different day (Monday is just a day of the week, not something to be dreaded, so get over it.).

What's on your to-NOT-do list?

Monday, December 5, 2011

I am a published writer!

Okay, self-published . . . and for now, only in this context of this blogging world.

Because every single time I write a blog, I have to click on the Publish tab at the top of the page.  Oooo, what a feeling.

So, in other words, I am a published writer.

Just not being paid a gazillion dollars . . . yet.

As you might've noticed, I updated the progress status of Beholder's Eye.  I have finished editing up to chapter 14.  And I have 62 total chapters (61 chapters and an Afterward titled Views From The Outhouse.  Sound familiar?)

"Good to Great" - merging Jim Collins's concepts into my writing

A month ago, I read a book by Jim Collins called Good to Great.  In it, he talks about how certain companies defy the odds over a number of years and become truly great, even in the midst of economic turmoil.  He compares the wide spectrum of publicly-traded companies (because their financial records and press releases are open) and whittles the list down until he emerges with a list of companies that he calls "great."  He compares them to similar companies within the same timeframe, and lists why one company failed and the other became successful.

Over the next few blogs, I'll explore some of his concepts and merge them with my writing career.  Even though he picks large companies, like Walgreens and Wells Fargo, as the truly great companies in terms of stock prices/profits, I'm going to turn back the dial and show how the concepts can be applied to one's own individual life/career.  I believe they can be used on an individual level, and lead you to a better life, to a more successful life.

Friday, December 2, 2011

This blog - it's not just for writers

It doesn't take long to figure out that this blog is mostly intended for writers . . . although the advice can spill over into other arenas of thought.

I recently listened to a podcast ( where Dan Miller talks about why he attends various seminars, even if it's not in his area of interest--for those of you who don't know who Dan is, he's a successful career coach and author.  He gave the example of attending a real estate seminar.  He doesn't even sell real estate, but the principles he learned only increased his knowledge of what he's doing.  He took out what he could work with.

The same could be said about this blog.  I'm not sure the demographics of who reads this, and although there may be a majority as writers, let me speak to some of the others right now.  Finding out what one truly loves to do--something Dan Miller speaks about a lot, so I strongly encourage you to read his blog as well and listen to his podcasts--and doing what you love to do is a journey I believe everyone should take.  As Simon Sinek calls it, find out your "why."

If you love to work on Harley Davidson motorcycles, woodworking, creating quilts, restoring classic Mustangs, painting portraits, coaching people through the difficult parts of their life, photography . . . and the list goes on . . . whatever that may look like, envision it.

To help you, let me ask you a question I've been asking people for quite some time now: if you were able to be paid $500,00 (or even a million) dollars a year to do what you love to do, what would that look like?  Be honest with yourself.  The answer could surprise you.

Speaking of woodworking, one of my cousins has found his passion in woodworking.  But not just any woodworking.  Woodworking by hand, without any need for power tools.  I've been following his blog for quite some time, and I can honestly say it's very impressive. His blog is   I don't love working with wood as much as my cousin, but it still inspires me to do what I love: writing.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Bah humbugs" are not welcome here

"Bah humbug!"

We all know the famous line by Charles Dicken's Ebenezer Scrooge, but more and more people lately seem to be saying the "bah humbugs" this holiday season.

2011 has certainly been a trying year for our family, one that started with two heart-wrenching events in January (quite a mess to clean up, that's for sure) and another with my wife being diagnosed with AML (acute myeloid leukemia) in April.  We worked through the events in January and learned our lessons from it as it prepared us for the near-fatal disease that turned our world inside out.  Luckily, with today being day 91 after her bone marrow transplant, she's back at home and recovering quite well.  She still has weekly appointments in Rochester for the next few weeks, and then they'll change to monthly.

It'd be easy for me to be pissed off at the world and just spout off a horde of "bah humbugs" . . . but I'm not.  Before I go on, I certainly don't need anyone to feel sorry for me.  That's not the point of this.  Because, believe it or not, there are other people worse off in this world than even us.

For those out there who have to be constantly spouting off their "bah humbugs" on everyone, I have three words for you:


Our family of five could've very easily ended the year as a family of four.  Thank God we're not.  Is the war over?  Certainly not.  We're fighting battles every single day.  Thank God we have close family and friends (and a community) who are willing to help out at a moment's notice.

Speaking directly to you "bah humbugs" out there, you could have very valid reasons for feeling that way.  I understand.  But I choose not to do so, not to have those negative attitudes.  I choose to live my life looking to the future, seeing the glass as half-full, and knowing life is going to get better.  Sure, there will be more curveballs thrown at us.  We're ready for them.  We'll work through them like we have everything else.

And always remember that there are others who can't help but get struck with those curveballs . . .

He walks . . . or he walked. Present vs. past tense.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist--or someone with a doctorate in literature--to ascertain the conclusion that the majority of books written are in past tense.  And if it feels natural to do so, just do it.

But there's a few writers out there who tackle the present tense.  And yours truly is one of them.

From as far back as I can remember, I've written in present tense.  To me, I view my writing as a portal to another age or land, and I'm bringing you on this journey.  Present tense feels natural to me, despite the countless books I've read that are in past tense.

A friend of mine described his writing of the past tense as telling a story over a campfire: "Long ago, in a far away land, there lived a princess . . ."

I'm just giving you something to think about.  I'm not trying to be clever by writing in present tense.  I just write what feels natural to me.  A few stories I've written are in past tense, and those stories felt right in that tense too.

Experiment, if you wish.

(As a side note, there is also the future tense, but primarily those are reserved for build-your-own adventure stories and such.  I've never read a future tense story - I'm sure there's one out there)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Congratulations NaNoWriMo participants!

A brief congratulations for those who competed in NaNoWriMo

Did you complete your 50,000 words on time?  Even if you didn't, you gave it one hell of a shot.  And if you did . . . CONGRATULATIONS!

Does one need to wait until November to write the first draft of your novel at near-lightning speed?  Oh, no.  Just write 1,667 words in a single day.  Believe me, it may seem like a lot, but once you get going, I'm sure you find the words flowing out like water from a hose.

Even though NaNoWriMo is over doesn't mean your writing has to stop.  Keep going, keep writing, and excel at your craft.

Why I like Food Network's "Restaurant Impossible"

Chef Robert Irvine is one cool dude.

I'm an avid Food Network TV watcher, whenever I get a chance to watch TV, which usually amounts to an hour or so a day, depending on how much writing I get done.  I don't watch Food Network TV because I want to be a chef.  I just enjoy cooking.  It's not a passion of mine--that I reserve for my writing.

Robert Irvine, over the past few years, he hosted a show called Dinner Impossible where he was challenged to create meals, under not-so-ideal circumstances, in not-so-ideal time-limits.  Nowadays, he upped the ante in the show Restaurant Impossible.  In RI, Robert goes into failing restaurants, shows the owners what they're doing wrong, how they can fix it, and does it all within a very frugal budget (typically for $10,000 in 48 hours).  I've even liked a similar show called Bar Rescue for much the same reasons: because I can transfer it back to my writing.

These TV shows are analagous to editing one's stories in the way of having someone else read it.  Critically.  We all have someone who'll give us the tough love and tell us our story stinks worse than a pile of rotten potatoes (which, by the way, does smell like shit).  Hopefully that person is a reader.  Having, and trusting, someone who will read your writing with a critical eye will give you an edge over someone else.

This person, 99.999999% of the time, will be someone unreleated to you--because we all know how much family members tell the truth.  NOT!  This person will be a good friend, and could even be another writer.  Do you have to pay this person?  Not in my opinion you don't.  Even Stephen King points out in his book On Writing that he has a group of people, outside of his editorial circle, who reads his stories, and he said nothing about paying them.  I, personally, would be honored if Mr. King chose me to read a future story of his (hint, hint!)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Quantity vs. Quality - structuring your first draft

Simon Sinek, on a recent post, wrote: "The hardest part is starting.  Once you get that out of the way, you'll find the rest of the journey much easier."

Over the years, I've met people who have a great idea--be it a novel or an invention--and when I asked them what they did with it, they said, "Oh, nothing."  Why is this?  Because it is hard to start.  Especially if you're not used to doing something on your own, something that will further not only your life but the lives of others.  Starting is a lot like jumping off the diving board for the first time when you were a kid, and your parents urged you again and again to do it.

Well here I am, urging you to do it.  Because you can.

When I start the first draft, I go for quantity.  I set a goal of X amount of pages each day.  Some people use words.  Whatever works for you, use it.  But set out each day to complete those pages/words.  To start off with, I'd go slow.  Set the bar a little low, especially if you've never written before.  In college, with juggling a job and school and tae kwon do classes, I set the goal of one page a day.  I had a calendar, where I slashed a hash mark for every page I wrote.  What I wanted to see was the number of pages increase steadily over time.  One week I did seven pages, the next I'd do ten, then fifteen . . . you get the picture.  Go for quantity, and don't worry about what it looks like.  That's what the second and beyond drafts are for.

Once the book is complete and you've celebrated, the second and beyond drafts are slower.  Here, you're looking for quality.  This is where you use the macro-level and micro-level editing techniques I laid out before.  You're looking to improve the writing, because Lord knows your first dtaft isn't very good.  And don't think you're a horrible writer just based on the first draft.  No writer gets it right the first time.  Over time, your first draft will improve and the less editing you'll have to do, but that's years down the road, once you've written several thousand pages.

Do it.  Today.  Start.  Jump off the diving board . . . GO!

Monday, November 28, 2011

How I write my first drafts. It's not for everyone.

Every writer is different.

That's a good thing, because if we were all the same, life would be fairly boring.

How each writer writes their first draft is also different, despite a few common themes or techniques.

Here's what I do.  Ready?

As I've noted before, I don't outline.  Even the thriller I'm currently editing, I never outlined it.  I'm what is probably called a discovery writer.  I write by discovering and do very little planning.  Stephen King is like this, even though my skills pale in comparison with his by lightyears.

I set a goal of X amount of pages to write in a single day, then I set out to write those pages.  Most of the time, I either meet that goal or exceed them, with a constant urge to exceed.  It may take me several months to write, but for the most part I do not look back, except to check a few facts or to make sure all of the details match up.  I rarely go back and edit.  I resist all temptation to go back and fix something.  I wait for that until the first draft is complete.

Not all writers do this.  Some edit as they go, but I personally find this too tedious.  I'd just as soon get all of the pages out there--I call this vomiting as much onto the page as possible.

Find out what works best for you.  My way isn't for everyone.  But the bottom line is to dedicate yourself to writing . . . and write every single day.

In the words of the great philosopher, El Nike: "Just do it!"

Sunday, November 27, 2011

9/11 is my Pearl Harbor

I can't watch any 9/11 movies.

This morning, I watched Pearl Harbor on WGN-TV.  I watched the whole thing, admiring the courage America faced and at the same time despising the cruelty brought on to us.  My heart raced as bombs struck ships and bullets ripped through buildings, killing hundreds upon hundreds of people.  I know much of the minor details are fictionalized, but the main plot--that the Japanese bombed Pearl Habor--remained the same.  It happened.  We lived.

I don't know this for fact, but I imagine when Pearl Harbor came to the screen, a number of people who lived in that age probably couldn't watch it.  Not that they thought it was an awful movie--it wasn't, by the way--but since they lived through those tragic events, it was like revisiting them all over again.

Hence the reason I can't watch any movies regarding 9/11.  I lived through that event--okay, I was way over in Minnesota at the time--but my blood still boils whenever I see video footage from that tragic day.

Every generation has an event that defines it, something that says, "Oh, I was here when that happened." I remember right where I was when I first heard reports about the 9/11 bombers.

I don't usually tell you this, but I'm currently reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and although I'm not even 100-pages into it, I can already tell it's a great read.  The gist is about a guy who finds a portal to the year 1958 and discovers that he could alter history by stopping the JFK assassination.  My grandparents lived through Pearl Harbor, and my parents lived through the JFK assassination.  That defined their generation.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Okay, okay. You want to outline. Let me show you what other writers do.

As I've said before, I don't outline.

Depends on what you're definition of outlining is.  All writers do to a certain degree, even if it's all in a person's head.  I scribble a few notes on a  Post-It or in a notebook, but is that considered outlining?  To me, I envision outlining as writing down the most detailed events of your story, filling in the gaps here and there, before you ever start to write "Chapter One."  Not me.  Aside from those scribblings--and what's rolling around in my head--that's it.

Last year, when Ian Graham Leask was visiting our little library, he suggested outlining in this way: take a roll of butcher paper, spread it out across the table or the floor, and write out the various parts of your story.  Very clever.  I've even read about people taking a large piece of paper and free-writing the outline.  Thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver tells that he spends a lot of time, meticulously outlining his story, by writing down the various parts in an extremely organized fashion--reminds me of grade-school and we were asked to outline our essays with Roman numerals and such.

I recently listened to a podcast ( where Brandon Sanderson said he uses the document map feature for Microsoft Word.  To try this out for yourself, open your Word document and click on the "view" tab.  You'll actually have to write something but it categorizes it.  Let's say you have one heading for each character, and then various aspects of your worldbuilding, you can use the document map feature to jump down to that part of your outline.

I'm sure there are tons of other ways to outline that I haven't touched on.  Please share me your outlining methods, and if any of these above help, give it a try.  It's possible you're having problems starting your story and you need to outline a little to organize it.  Do it.

But most of all, write.  Write something.  Every single day.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What I'm thankful for . . .

This may sound like some amatuer term paper one would write in high school, to write about how I spent my summer, but with today being Thanksgiving, I thought I'd share a bit about what the last 11 months looked like and how I am truly thankful.

Right off the bat, 2011 has been one trial after another for our family.

January and February (and the early part of March) were not the best for us, financially-speaking.  Aside from filing for bankruptcy, which we didn't do, imagine two of the worst possible financial disasters one could face.  Okay, I imagine the IRS coming after us would be bad and that didn't happen, but anyway these two financial disasters were not very pleasant to work through . . . but we did it.  It took a lot of hard work, budgeting, and guidance from close family members and a financial guru named Dave Ramsey, and we did it.  We emerged stronger than ever.

Then in April, my wife was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).  Even with it being Thanksgiving and over seven months later, we're still not out of the water, but we're still working on it and my wife is healing more and more each day.  The doctor said she may not be completely healed for up to five years.

It's easy for one to look at all this and assume we would be just pissed at the world.  We're not.  We're thankful we went through the financial hell in January and February (yes, believe it or not, we're thankful) because when our other world fell apart, there would be no way we could've survived unless our financial house was in order.

I am thankful for family (most of them, and that's all I'm going to say about that so don't tempt me to elaborate - they'll come around, I'm very forgiving that way), friends, and even the community we live in.  We're also thankful for the medical staff at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, ND and at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. We're also thankful for the generosity of so many individual people who have stepped up to help.

We're also thankful for God.  Because without His love, none of this would be possible.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Example of micro-level editing

The following is an example of micro-level editing, from one paragraph in my thriller Beholder's Eye.

            As the eldest child, Claudia Raynes has grown quite accustomed to her Dad’s weird work schedules.  She remembers when he worked vampire hours: work at night and sleep in the day.  He finally switched to a normal day shift when she was in the first grade.  Now, with his new job, he’s back to a weird work schedule again.  Not vampire hours, but even worse ones, longer ones, depending on what type of case he’s working on.

And here is the finished product, after micro-level editing:

            As the eldest child, Claudia Raynes remembers when her Dad worked vampire hours: work at night and sleep in the day.  He finally switched to a normal day shift when she was in the first grade, and has grown quite accustomed to it over the years.  Now, with his new job, he’s back to a different work schedule.  Not vampire hours, mind you, but even longer ones, depending on what type of case he’s working on.

See how much more smoothly it is?  The main issue I had was that Claudia, in the first paragraph, had grown accustomed to her father's work schedules, but he hadn't worked the nightshift for several years.  Why would be accustomed to them, if they were so long ago?  She would be accustomed to him working a normal day shift.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Patience, young Jedi. The art of micro-level editing.

I'm not going to fool you.  Micro-level editing requires a lot of time and patience.  There's really no way around it, so deal with it if you want to be published.

Micro-level editing involves the minute details of your story, whether or not a certain word should be there or a certain sentence.  Those who do not write have little appreciation for this, and frankly don't understand what a single word could mean to the entire story.  But for us writers, we do.  We know.  Like the skilled cabinetmaker, we sand down all of the corners, even if they won't be seen.  (Words, however, are seen of course . . .)

Take this for an analogy.  Michelangelo paints the Sistine Chapel, so exquisite and complete that from the floor it's as beautiful as ever.  But up close, here and there, the work is sloppy.  Very small places, he does this.  What happens?  The Sistine Chapel isn't as exquisite as you thought.  That's why the smallest details can make or break the story.

Break your story into pieces.  First, lump your chapters together.  For example, in my thriller Beholder's Eye, I lump the first nine chapters together and call them "The 1st body."  This is for my own organizing, I didn't really name this "Part 1: the 1st body."  No way.  Then, I take each chapter and break it down into scenes, which is easy because it's usually where the page break is.  I examine each scene as a whole, reading ever-so slowly, with my mind whirling.

Does the scene make sense?  Do the characters advance, even a little bit?  Is this scene necessary to further the story?  Is the dialogue realistic-sounding?  Is some of the dialogue unnecessary?  Could my descriptions get beefed up a little--try three or four good non-cliche descriptions, ones that will make it unique?  Speaking of cliche, are there any cliches, either in the dialogue or the scene itself?  Do I have any unnecessary adverbs--or have I eliminated them altogether?  Is the dialogue simplified to be "he said" and "she said."?

Even the use of a repeated word can cause a reader to draw attention to the words instead of the story.  I was recently editing Beholder's Eye and found in two paragraphs I used the word "after" three times.  Carefully examining these two paragraphs, I eliminated two of them--one I completely struck from the story and the other one I re-worded.

This should get your started, and by no means is this a complete list.

Remember: above all, have patience.  Your story will be worth it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

NaNoWriMo - the epitome of El Nike's philosophy


National November Writing Month

With today being the 21st of November, it's too late for me to start, but rest assured this is something I want to tackle next November.

What is NaNoWriMo?

In a single month (this could be any month but the NaNoWriMo people picked November because "Na-no-rye-moe" sounds way cooler than NaJaWriMo or NaAugWriMo) one is to write 50,000 words of a first draft.  That equates to 1,666 words in a single day.

Can it be done?

As the great philosopher, El Nike, says, "Just do it!"

Example of macro-level editing

I could pick several examples of macro-level editing in my own writing.  The best example I have is from the first novel I ever wrote - a deer-hunting horror story that I wrote back in college.  The reason this one may be the best to choose from at this point is because, as a writer in the pre-infancy of his career, I was naive in the realistic-ness of the story.  Certainly, with it being horror-genre, it's a story that could never happen, but in that world under those conditions with those characters, would the overall story be realistic in how it emerges.  Turns out it doesn't.

The gist of the story was a group of four friends who go out hunting each year in the wilds of northern Minnesota, and they found themselves immersed in a killing spree with an undead monster--who just happened to be their best friend who went missing years ago.  Anyway, in the story, the monster killed between thirty and forty people.

Do you see a problem with that?

You may not, but if you were to thread that with the rest of the story, it was all up to the local Sheriff's department to solve, without the help of the FBI or even the Minnesota BCA and without the governor calling in the National Guard to keep the peace.  Also, if there's a killing spree nowadays that involve even a handful of people, the media flocks to it like flies on shit.  In my story the media was non-existent.  Not that I needed the media, but I should've at least written a little about it.

In the end, the number of killings were greatly reduced - it's a novel that needs a lot of work (for crying out loud, it was my first novel; of course it's going to need a lot of work) but it will be published some time down the road.

I could go on and on with examples, but for now I'll leave it here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Viewing your story from space - macro-level editing

Macro-level editing doesn't come easy to me, but I have a few tricks that may help your writing.

Macro-level editing, like the title of this blog entails, is viewing your entire story as a whole.  Some writers have been known to spread out the printed pages, literally, either across the floor or papered the walls of their office.  I've never resorted to this, but if it works for you, do it.  Physically viewing it as such gives a feel of how weighty the words are, the amount of dialogue, even the amount of "white space."  Honestly, it shouldn't look like a brick wall, the pages solid with words.  It should be chopped, short paragraphs mixed in with long, and plenty of dialogue.  If you don't believe me, pick up your favorite book.  What does it look like?

First and foremost, your story has to be complete.  The first draft, I mean.  Then, what I do, is take a few weeks off, doing something totally different before tackling this story again.  Afterwards, when I'm ready, I take the printed pages and read the entire thing as fast as I can.

Reading it in this fashion accomplishes a few things.  How does the story flow, smoothly or choppy?. How does it sound?  Does the plot make sense?  Is the plot realistic for the characters involved?  Do the characters grow?  Do we connect with the characters?  Is there a common thread tying the story together?  Do your multiple plotlines converge neatly at the end?

It's a lot to think about, but if you can work on all of these--and this is, by no means, a conclusive list--then your story will be much better and you can work on the next step: micro-level editing.

At this point in the macro-level editing process, you may even see if you have blocks of exposition that could be removed, because, quite frankly, even though this worked for Tolkien, it doesn't work well with today's readers, for the most part.  Few today can actually pull this off.  Don't fool yourself.  You're probably not one of them.

Are there entire chapters that could be eliminated, because they do nothing to further the story?  It's happened to me, and more than likely to you too.

Take a month or two and work through your story in this manner.  Then, once you feel it looks better viewing it from space, it's time to move to micro-level editing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Two types of editing - macro-level and micro-level

Although there are dozens upon dozens of varying techniques of editing your stories, for the most part they can be broken down into two camps: macro-level and micro-level editing.

I'll break these down further in the subsequent blogs, but here's a teaser of them right now.

Macro-level is the overall story.  This could be the tense of the story (past or present), or the structure, the plot, characterization, descriptions, or even what I call the "realistic-ness" of the story.

Micro-level is the bits and pieces of the story.  This is each chapter, paragraph, or sentence.  This would also deal with the plot, characterization, and descriptions, but on a more individual basis.

When I'm editing, it feels like my mind is scrambling on various planes, on both the macro- and micro-level.  This is why it typically takes a writer a long time to get their story publish-ready, because there are so many aspects of writing you need to be aware of.

But rest assured, with practice, one can learn these and become a better writer.  You'll still need the assistance of a great editor.  Nothing could ever replace that.  Yet the more work you can do ahead of time, the better.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writers' groups - pros and cons for novelists

Typically, regardless of the structure of your writing group, novelists are most times at a disadvantage.  And for obvious reasons.

But do I still feel attending a writers' group is beneficial?  Absolutely, I do.  Let's explore.

The most obvious reason is because on a typical night, all a novelist will be able to read is one chapter.  Even if you met once a week, it could still be over a year before the entire group hears the complete novel. And with Permanent Ink--the writers' group I attend--we meet roughly 17 times in a year.  At that rate, with 62 chapters to the thriller I'm currently editing, that would be three and a half years!  Yikes!  Even if all members showed up at each meeting, they might not remember what happened from one meeting to the next.

Some writers' groups, who feature novelists, focus on one reader a night and they share four or five chapters.  Others present their writing ahead of time and it's up to the other members to read the given material.  Do whatever works best.

Novelists are writers and I truly believe everyone benefits from others' input.  Even if you don't read every single chapter, take a chapter you're having problems with or excerpts of it.  Or, heck, even read what you think are the best parts.

Overall, the pros definitely outweight the cons when it comes to novelists.  Even if you're writing a Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson-esque fantasy epic, it still works--because it has for me.  And with my writers' group, there are three of us who write novels.

A final note: the novelists could give their entire novel, or chunks of it, to the others to read ahead of time, giving them adequate time to read it.  That way, their novel could be read at one time, rather than spread out.  Just a thought.  Try anything.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Writers' groups - how often?

Something that should be hashed out at your first writers' group meeting is the question of how often you're going to meet.

This is going to vary, depending on the number of members and their schedules.  I mention this because the group I meet with has met every three weeks for the past eight years.  That works out best for us, who seem to have very busy schedules (working two jobs, raising a family, etc.).  It also gives us time to polish up our next piece and continue working on other projects we're not sharing with the group.

Some groups meet monthly and others I've known meet biweekly--on a side note, I listed to a writing excuses podcast ( where the members of that podcast attend weekly.  Keep in mind, those are published authors, but it's something to think about if you want to be published.  When we met, we thought monthly was too long of a break between meetings and every two weeks seemed tobe too often.

Typically, we've averaged four to six members at a time.  Here is what we do: after a quick greeting, we see who brought stuff to read.  Most times, everyone has something, although not everyone attends each meeting.  Then, whoever has something to share, passes out copies of their work and then he/she reads their piece.  Afterwards, we critique what worked and what didn't, the story's strong points, and if there are places that need revising, we address them here.  This process can be cumbersome, especially if all five current members share something--three of us are novelists so sharing entire or partial chapters can drag these meetings out.  In the past, we've tried handing in your work to the librarian a week prior to our meeting, and although this worked for a little while, it also proved troublesome because not everyone was able to get their work to the library and the library was really open after 5PM one night a week.  If it works for you though, that's great.  At least try out different ways to share your stories.

How often you meet doesn't matter as much as it does one's commitment.  You should commit to attend every single meeting, even if you don't have something to share.  You're still able to critique others' works and hopefully inspire you to bring something next time.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Let me introduce you . . .

Say hello to my thriller, titled Beholder's Eye.

As you may notice on the left-hand site of the blog is a status update on my editing process for this novel.  Beholder's Eye is the fourth novel I've ever written--and completed.  I won't go into a synopsis for the story right now, but rest assured I will in the near future when the editing process is near completion and I'm ready to start contacting literary agents again.

Beholder's Eye is based in Minnesota.  The main character is an investigator for the Minneapolis PD.  Much of the story is in Minneapolis, with the exception of the last hundred pages.  Here, it draws the character into a small rural community, where he witnesses a horror synonymous with those from another small town in Wisconsin--Ed Gein, anyone?

That's all I'm going to say about Beholder's Eye.  Keep an eye on the status update as it nears the 100% mark.

How do I calculate this status, Mark?

I'd show you the spreadsheet--thanks, Microsoft, for giving us Excel--but I'll summarize here.  I have a total of six columns, each with a different task for each chapter that I X off when it's completed.  There are sixty-two chapters and each column is as follows:
1) Edit hard copy - this is where I edit the hard copy of each chapter, done typically away from the computer.
2) Making corrections to each chapter - self-explanatory, in a way.  I go through and make the corrections from the hard copy to each file.
3) Re-read the changes out-loud, noting any discrepancies - the longest part of the process, for this involves reading and reading each chapter until it is, for lack of a better term, in a publishable form.
4) Updating the word count - another self-explanatory process, so I can keep track of how many words are in this novel.
5) Print finalized copy - I like to keep a hard copy of each novel, just in case.
6) Backup each file - another ones that needs little explanation.

I also keep tabs on which chapters I've shared with the Permanent Ink writers' group.  One of the members has also agreed to read the entire novel - which I am very grateful for, as she's noted discrepancies in some of the first chapters that slipped my mind.  I've given her ten chapters at a time and right now she's reading chapters 21-30.  Thanks, Amanda!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Writers' Groups - the good, the bad, and . . . the weird?

Right up front, let's get this off my chest: not all writers' group members are good.  Specifically, some are like a cancer.  Thankfully, I've only met one.

And if it wasn't for my daughter, sitting in a stroller next to me (looking as cute as always), I would've walked out and never returned.  I could've walked out with her, but it would've been a hassle.

Writers' groups: the good, the bad, and the weird.

There's so much good about these groups, I could go on and on.  First, you get the social interaction with fellow writers.  Sure, if you happen to be one of the more veteran members of the group, the others will look at you for guidance.  That's okay.  One of our number one topics, other than reading what we've written for that meeting, is just the act of sitting down and writing.  I'm fairly determined and make sure I write something every single day.  I've been told on numerous occasions how much inspiration I cause in others because of it.  And, knowing you have a meeting soon, will also push you to get something to share.

Another good point to a writers' group, and probably the most important, is reading each other's work.  There are many ways to do this, and others I haven't thought about, but I'll leave this for a future blog.  Frankly, it's very numerous and I'll get into more details then.

We've had a few weird members too, although I can't really call them members.  A few years back, an elderly gentleman came to our group, because he had a story to tell but didn't want to take the time to write it.  He wanted us to write it for him.  Sorry, that's not what we were about, but we were polite enough and listened to him.  In the end, we kindly told him we all have our own stories to write and share.  He seemed a little off by it, and on occasion attended a few other meetings to see if we changed our minds.  We hadn't.

The bad.  Unfortunately this came in the form of one of our founding members.  I will not mention names here, and I will also try not to even give the indication of male or female.

This member wrote stories, memoirs mind you, about her past when she lived in another country.  She (oops, it was a female!) wrote beautifully, with great prose, although she always seemed to hate what I wrote and nitpicked each and every thing.  I wrote horror at the time (still do, but now it's more thrillers and fantasy).  My first three novels are horror-genre, and I've written a number of short stories in this genre too.

On the meeting date in question, I shared a gruesome story about two teenagers (although, if I recall, I never said their ages but it was implied), and it was my attempt at flash fiction. (Flash fiction are extremely short stories, usually just a few pages long).  Anyway, at our next meeting time, she shared a different story than what she normally did.  This was a story, narrated by a group of teenagers, who were sitting out in the hallway and waiting for their next class.  They spotted one of my children (yes, she mentioned my name in the blasted story) and the teenagers debated kidnapping him and torturing him, simply because I was a famous author (in the story) who wrote gruesome tales.  I took it as a personal sting.  Now, I can take attacks at me and not take it personally.  But when it's directed on my kids . . .

This person also seemed to exhibit an aura of arrogance regarding her writing.  She did this by completely destroying our own stories.  I would even write, at times, and in the back of my mind would think, "What would _____ say?"  But I soon quit and just kept writing what I loved, regardless of what others think.  On another occasion, she critiqued another of our member's writings about her early days on the farm and wanted to know more about the mechanics of farming.  Sorry, but the best writing is about characters not an essay on farming implements of the early twentieth century.

(I should note right here that she moved away years ago)

Take it for what it's worth.  Attend (or create) a writers' group, knowing the good, the bad, and the weird are out there.  But that shouldn't keep you from doing what you love: writing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Debating the need for a writers' group

You've been writing a while, you've got your first (or fifth or tenth) novel finished, your short story is done . . . now what?  You'd like to have someone else read it, but who?

My friend, let's discuss the need for a writers' group.

Do you absolutely need one to get published?  No.  But what a better way to, not only connect with other writers who may be struggling with the same issues as you, get a group of impartial critics of your work.

Over the next several weeks, I'll touch on the finer points of a writers' group.  Today, I'll start with where to find one.

I live in northwest Minnesota, where there are probably more white-tailed deer than people (or so it seems).  Back in college, I attendeded a few fiction writing classes (taught by famed award-winning Minnesota author Will Weaver) and for each class you had to read something to the rest of the class.  This was my first taste of a writers' group.  Even though we were classmates, all of us were writers, with varying aspiration about the craft and skill level.

Let's jump ahead to the year 2003.  This would be in the early summer and my daughter Mariah was just born.  The librarian at the time knew I loved to write and asked if I'd be interested in joining a writers' group that she was starting up.  She did some writing, but ran into several others who also did.  At this point, the only writers' group was about 90 miles away in Roseau, MN.  Long story short, the Permanent Ink writers' group was born in Red Lake Falls, MN.

I won't dwell on the group's history, except for one: over the years (8 and still going strong), we've had an eclectic sort of people attend our group meetings.  We've had poets, playwrights, novelists, and short story writers.  We've had people working on their family histories and others who are working on a fantasy epic.

Great, Mark!  But where do I find one?

First, I'd check with either your local library or bookstore to see if they know of one.  Chances are, if you live in a town of at least 5,000 people, at least one exists.  Then again, where Permanent Ink meets every three weeks, our community has a little over a thousand people.

What if there are no such groups?  Create one.  Ask the librarian about where you can meet, ask them to help promote your group, and do it.  Once you do, you might want to set up some groundrules on how often, how long each person can read for, and what type of material.  Don't worry about electing a board of directors or having a group president or anything like that.  We don't, and we've been operating pretty consistently for over 8 years.

I'll explore this topic a little more in depth soon, on how to set one up and who you want in your group.  The bottom line is that the people who join need to be dedicated to writing and offering both positive and honest feedback.  If your story sucks, have them tell you specifically.  Do you need to take each and every person's advice.  No way.  Take what works, and you'll find your stories will start to improve.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Floodgates Phenomenon

It usually occurs when I least expect it, a sudden flash of inspiration and an equally sudden lack of writing implements.

I call it the Floodgates Phenomenon.

Let's take a guy, his name is Jack.  He's a stock boy at the local grocery store but is also an aspiring writer.  One day, while ripping open cartons of Corn Flakes and situating them on the shelf, he thinks of a great opening line to his new book.  He looks up at the clock.  Crap, it's forty-five minutes until his break time - a near-eternity for this starving artist.  There's no way his boss, Manager High Pants, is going to let him take a break early, not with three more pallets to sort through.  He keeps diligently working, all the while that great opening line is just tumbling over and over in his mind.

Finally, it's break time.  He grabs his notebook, steals away into the corner of the breakroom, and writes down that opening line.

Phew!  "Thank God," he says to himself.  "If I would've waited much longer, that one would've gone away."

Then, once that line is down on paper, the next paragraph flashes before him.  He also writes it down.  Then, more and more come to him.  His pen flies across the paper and he's just pumped at the progress he's making.  Before he knows it, his entire break time flies by and he's written two or three pages.

Ever felt like this?  I'm sure you have, even if you're not a writer.

The Floodgates Phenomenon seems to occur when this "flash" shines forth like a lighthouse beacon and you can't see anything beyond it.  Then, once you've committed it to paper or word document (or whatever writing surface you can find - although I don't recommend the bathroom stall, if but a last resort and you don't mind having your idea next to pleas for who to call for a good time) more floods your mind.

This happened while I was planning what to do with this blog.  I thought I'd have twelve decent blogs and that'd be it.  Now I'm past forty and I have Post-Its with scribblings of at least twenty or thirty more.  And do I think that's it?  No way!

It may happen because what is first and foremost in your mind dominates with such authority, that the rest waits patiently behind it, not even announcing their presence until it's free to do so.  That's the way writing is with me.  As soon as I write whatever is dominating my mind, whether it be the next scene of a novel or a new short story or blog, the floodgates open and more ideas pour out than what I originally thought.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

This crazy little thing called Writer's Block

I rarely get writer's block nowadays.

But it's an event that occurs in a writer's mind that causes them to stumble and seize up their writing.

Was I always this way?  Oh, no.  What did I do to remedy it?  Let's explore . . .

In the infancy of my writing career--we're talking in elementary school years now--I used to write the first few pages of a new novel, and for whatever reason I'd quit.  I never really understood it.  In seventh grade, my parents bought me an old black typewriter (yes, you heard right, a typewriter) that had to weigh close to fifty pounds.  (Watch the Stephen King movie Misery to get an idea on what it looked like).  I wrote about thirty or more pages, single-spaced, of a ninja trilogy.  The weird part is I had the entire trilogy all laid out in my head but I stopped at those thirty-plus pages.  I never did anything else with it, and it had nothing to do with writer's block.  I just didn't think the story was worth writing.  I didn't think anyone but me would want to read it.  But who knows what the distant future will bring . . .

My earliest recollection of writer's block was in college.  I was working on a deer hunting horror story--the first novel I ever completed (see a previous blog on how I celebrated this milestone)--when in one of the first few chapters I didn't know how to go on.  At one in the morning, I was getting pretty tired even though I still didn't go to bed.  I continued to write for a few more minutes, not really paying attention to what I was writing, when all of a sudden I wrote something I never intended to write.  It was like someone else's hands were on the keyboard.  I stopped.  I had no idea where to go from here.  Yawning and finally feeling the affects of sleepiness, I went to bed, the story rolling around and around in my head like tumblers on a safe.

In a flash, I awoke and the rest of the chapter appeared before my eyes.  Could I wait to write this until morning?  Not a chance.  I spent the next hour (it must've been after two in the morning at this point) writing the rest of the chapter.

How else can one handle writer's block?  Start with a different viewpoint.  In my first novel, I actually wrote one chapter from the point of view of a white-tailed deer.  What else?  In the thriller I'm currently editing, right in the middle of the book, when I was going to bridge the gap between the murder investigation with a plot-twist that upped the stakes on a more personal level, I had the main character be involved in a traffic accident that landed him in the hospital.  I didn't really plan this either.  It just happened.

Writer's block may also be solved by simply writing something else, starting a new project, or even reading a book--I know we're all reading, but how much is a topic for another blog.

What are your writer's block stories?

Monday, November 7, 2011

"What if I can't think of a good ending?"

In light of the previous post about creating dramatic endings, one question that could be asked is: what if you can't think of a good ending?

That could be what was in Bram Stoker's mind when he ended Dracula how he did, even though I seriously doubt he didn't really know how to end it.

One answer that comes to mind is: it doesn't have to end . . . with that one novel.  Could it be a sequel or a trilogy or even a long series?  Then your monster wouldn't have to die or end, it could live and grow stronger.  Need an example?  Lord Voldemort in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter is one.  He keeps growing more powerful with each book.

Another answer would be to write three or four alternative endings, have a group of trusted friends read them (ones that can give you an honest opinion, not a sure-this-is-good-but-only-because-we're-friends-and-I-can't-tell-you-the-truth).  You need the truth here.

If you can't even do that, skip the ending (for now) and go on to something else.  Then, after a week or a month, come back to it.  If you still can't think of one, then maybe your story isn't as good as it should be.  And if that's the case, write another story.

A final word of advice on this could be: what books or movies are similar to your story?  How did they end?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why I hate Bram Stoker's "Dracula"

Hate is such a strong word, but it grabs your attention.  I could've said dislike or any number of words taken from the thesaurus.  The one that I chose was hate.

Why, in the world, would I hate (or dislike or am hostile towards or resentful or about three dozen other words Roget's recommends that don't have quite the punch hate does) such a classic as Bram Stoker's Dracula?

Simple.  The ending sucked.

There you go again with the strong words, Mark.  Did it really "suck" that bad?

Let me clarify: Dracula is beautifully-written, from varying journal entries and letters, gaining multiple viewpoints of this frightening tale.  Much is built on setting up this elusive monster, one that slithers through the forever night, sucking blood and transforming victims into his minions.  Even the race back to Transylvania, with Van Helsing on his heels, is a nail-biting thrill-ride.  And how does Mr. Stoker end this masterful tale?  (Spoiler-alert: if you've never read this tale and intend to do so, STOP READING RIGHT NOW . . . okay, the rest of you can march forward with me)  The death of Dracula is reduced to a few sentences that ended so quick, I had to backtrack to find out what in the hell happened.  When I read again how Dracula's death was brought out, I nearly threw the book in the garbage.  But I didn't.  I plowed through to the end, resentful of Stroker's cop-out for a dramatic ending.

This is advice for mostly horror writers, and possibly thriller writers too.  When you've created such a dangerous creature and, in the end, that creature dies (or is captured), make that as explosive and dramatic as possible.  Your readers will thank you for it, for joining you on the journey you created for them.  What if George Lucas, when he created Star Wars, decided to not blow up the Death Star but simply have it slowly disintegrate?  Star Wars never would've been such a spectacular hit that it was.  For your endings, make them worth it.  Your reader just spent hours and hours and hours on end, following your tale.  End it right.  Don't cop-out like Stoker did.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Becoming a list-making freak

In the previous blog, I confessed that I'm a Post-It freak.  But I'm much more than that.  I freakishly love to make lists.

Earl Nightingale taught in his Lead The Field audio program that one should start a list of things you want to accomplish the day before you do it.  He said to write down the five things that you want to accomplish, prioritize them in the order of their importance, and the next day start with number one.  Once number one is complete, go on to number two.  And so on.  At the end of the day, create a list for the next day.

If one does this, commits to doing this, you'll accomplish more than you've ever dreamed of.  Will there be some days that you only get one thing done?  Of course.  But it doesn't matter because you worked on the most important thing.  Motivation author Brian Tracy taught in his book Eat That Frog that the best way to start your day is to do the biggest, ugliest task--the one you've been dreading or procrastinating on.  He calls it "eating the frog" with the frog being that dreaded task.  Once it's done and out of the way, you can move on to other tasks.

What's your frog?  It could be the start of your novel.  You just don't know how to start it (blog idea topic - yippee, something to write on my Post-It!) and you're just procrastinating.  Just get up tomorrow morning and jump right to it.  Before too long, it won't be that ugly frog anymore and you'll enjoy doing it--if, in fact, you love writing.  It's possible you'll discover that writing is not your thing and really it's your love of working on Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Start it today, right now, and make tomorrow's list.  Then, tomorrow, look at that list . . . and do it.