A New Life in Seattle

A New Life in Seattle
August, 2018

Sunday, September 29, 2019

How to Properly Anchor Your Book

Books without anchors leave readers adrift.

The simplest anchors may help us keep track of who's who in dialogue that runs on for a page. An occasional He or She said will usually suffice. Or a gesture inserted between two quoted sentences can break the monotony.
'Do you really think so?" Jane stared into space. "I just can't see it that way."

Other anchors inform or remind us where the action's going down or how a room is arranged. How far apart are two seated characters if one of them's holding a gun? If we know that, we'll understand why B doesn't simply charge A. Or: if the narrative's divided between Seattle and San Francisco, perhaps the Seattle portions are told in the first person, the S.F. portions in the third. Or we may devise a subtler way than announcing the place with each change of locale.

The timeline should be carefully anchored as well. And this can be the devil's own business. Bold headers can give us the day or the hour at the start of each new part or chapter:
12:00 A.M.

Or the timeline can be reinforced in a subtler way:
Two weeks after the death of Red Sands...

When details are entirely absent or are in far too short supply, we find ourselves adrift in an airy tale of faceless characters moving in and out of blurry rooms or homes, engaging in dialogue that comes from God knows which. Because of its blurred, dream-like nature, the prose can't help but fail to engage us. For all we know, the characters aren't even wearing clothes.

So then, the solution seems easy enough: when we write, it should always be 'Anchors away!'

Not so fast, though. 

Too many or too heavy anchors can quickly sink your readers

Too heavy: the mannered, nonstop repetition of 'He said' or 'She said.' In its own way, this is as phony as the prideful replacement of each 'said' with a deep purple substitute: S/he articulated...S/he pronounced...S/he uttered...S/he speechified...Variety is wonderful--if it's organic and discrete.

Too many: The equally mannered, nonstop iteration of brands/colors/fabrics/costs of all clothing in alls scenes. The cost and provenance of furniture. Etc.

Let's drop anchor as needed by readers. And let's drop it unobtrusively, simply as we can.

The result will be:

Sunday, September 15, 2019

When It's Time to Both Unfriend and Block

Unfriending in itself, I think, can be a healthy thing. Now and then we all should condense our lists, removing those we never engage with, those who are too militant about their offensive opinions, those who flood us with requests but do nothing in return, or those with whom it seems we have nothing in common. 

There shouldn't be any anger involved in positive Unfriending. And there's no need think of it as taking out the trash. 

No, think of it as pruning: removing the failed to make way for foliage that may have a chance.

Now and then, in fact, we may find it useful to Unfollow but not Unfriend someone we want to hear less from...but whom we want to keep in the loop about any future successes.

But Blocking turns Unfriending into a more extreme act. 

This is for when you've decided that not only do you not want this person as a friend, you want them knowing next to nothing about you. If they've proven that they can't be trusted; if they go off on you at the drop of a hat repeatedly;  if they've shown grave disrespect for you, your beliefs or your work; if their impact on you's negative...then it may be time to Block.

Today's Block may pave the way for a better building block to a better you.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

On Serious Series Writing

There's no need to stand alone--or really any cause to.

Don't kid yourself into thinking that all great books are standalone titles or that you're somehow selling out if you roll your dice on a series of books. Homer's Iliad had a sequel even better than the first. Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote dramatic cycles. Dante's Divine Comedy was a three-part series.

Think of the great series work done in our own time--and almost in every genre: from Frank Herbert to Sarah Paretsky to Michael Connelly to Cale Carr to Stephen King to J.K. Rowling...

Now, it's true that most Serious Literary Fiction does consist of standalones. Though they're harder to sell nowadays, books by writers with good pedigrees and even better contacts do make it through the gauntlet, are well-reviewed, and even score. Occasionally, there are breakaway successes like Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

What are the odds, though, against that when you're trying to pay the rent?

Let's stick to genre fiction and use our common sense.

The agent or editor we approach--as either an unpublished or ruined once-midlist writer--may be on fire about our book. In fact, they may even consider it a masterpiece. But will they able to sell it if they can't convince an editor who must convince Accounting that we're a sound long-term investment? In other words, can they be sure that lightning will strike twice...then thrice...then onward for years to come? They may believe you're a warhorse, able to turn out a novel a year. But readers, they say, are looking for more helpings of a dish they loved...not a completely new kettle of fish. Your unique book starring an Aborigine dwarf detective drove readers wild. But will they buy your next book about chess in ancient Babylon?

It's said that mystery readers are looking to see a real body of work before they'll a new author. They like to see five series entries, with the next on the horizon. Three or four will also work, as long as the blurb and cover are enticing.

I'd written two series of books before going seriously series: four Boss MacTavin mysteries and The Fast and the Furies, a series of theme-related thrillers. I decided to make a clean break while applying everything I'd learned. A new series, Seatle BOP, would be younger and lighter and freer, done in a much lighter style. Still writing from the heart, I bore a wise saying in mind:

Sell them what they want but give them what they need. 


Better yet, it seemed to me, learn to create the need. In a field of hulking Jack Reacher clones and even deadlier femmes, I'd set a hero measuring only 5'4". And no assassin or P.I., he's an insurance investigator. My goal: to create a need for a stylish new brand of excitement.

Thoughts for series-minded writers:
1) Decide at the start where you'll take your stand on the series spectrum, somewhere between thee two extremes: The lighter Sue Grafton/Robert B Paker model, where the series star hardly ages or changes between books...or the Micheal Connelly model with the opposite approach--the changes in Bosch are extreme. I pitched my own camp on the left with SG and RBP.
2) Though the writing's never easy--or at least it shouldn't be--you don't need to reinvent the wheel with every book. You know your setting and main characters, their histories and their quirks. And so you'll experience surges in energy and confidence that bring a new joy to your writing. entry
3) If you don't sell the first entry right off the bat, your appeal will be enhanced--along with your bargaining position--when you've completed two or three. 
4) Plus, you'll be so far ahead of the publishing timeline, that you can work without breaking a sweat.

For further reading, check this out:

All right, kiddos, now play ball!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Two Combo Sneak Punches for Writers

The combinations I propose are far simpler than you see in the photo. But I learned how effective they are when I set out to put on more speed.

1) Energy and confidence breed energy and confidence
You get one result if you approach your work timidly, whenever you find enough nerve in the day. In that spirit, you approach the Muse as if she's doing your lowly self a favor by planting a peck on your cheek with, say, 200 or 500 words. The words themselves, when they come, will be shaky and doubt-filled and sorry to be there.

You get an entirely different result if you approach your work boldly at the same time every day--whatever frigging mood you're in. Headache? Heartbreak? You still get to work. And not only do you get to work, but you also work in bigger, braver chunks: 1K-1.5K words or more. This grows easier as you go, for energy and confidence do give birth to more of the same. Your work is now racing, not creeping along. You have a stronger sense of the big picture. And entire scenes you'd never imagined come fully born to you.

Personal application: My previous writing speed has always been slow and tortuous: up to 2 years to finish a short novel of 40K words. Typically, I wrote 500 words a day--at scattered times--and a first draft might take half a year. This morning, I finished the first draft of my WIP in less than seven weeks, writing first thing daily.  And I swear by every word I wrote above.

2) Every book requires its own M/O
In a lifetime of longhand writing, I've used everything from legal pads to spiral-bound notebooks to hardcover journals to index cards to classic Moleskine notebooks...For budgetary reasons, I'd turned to Amazon Basic's excellent Moleskine facsimile. And these served me fine for the WIP...until I came to a critical point involving a new p.o.v. I wanted a different cover color to give a boost every day. But the Amazon notebook comes only in black.

Solution: I mounted cerise-colored index cards to the front cover. Crude and cheap, yes, but it worked, getting me daily back into the mood.

However, I had two longish sections to go, each with a major twist or surprise. And I felt my energy lagging just a little.

Solution: I returned to Moleskine, ordering two notebooks for the final sections: one in blue and one in white. And I'm here to tell you, the color tricks worked and the writing took off.

Let no trick be beneath you if it helps get the books in your head to the page with more efficiency and speed.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Pity the Fools!

In my life, I've known only a couple of folks who had the gift of pleasing all. Most of us are destined to rankle some, rile others, and rub still others the wrong way often for no other reason than we dared to breathe in the same room.

You may be too thin or too stout, too young or too old, too good-looking or defiantly different in looks, too gay or too straight. You may threaten someone's job security by excelling at your own. If you write well while you go your own way and refuse to grovel or kiss butt, count on having enemies. If you ever stand up to a bully, be damned sure to watch your back.

Yesterday, my last day at work, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of names wishing me well on a goodbye card. At the same time, I wasn't surprised by a small number of names that were missing. 

I left the store with good feelings, glad for the new skills I learned. It proved useful to work in a place that prides in itself on its Speak Up culture. Speaking Up was something I certainly did learn to do: calmly but powerfully. Then far less tactfully if I'm not heard.

I set out on a positive footing for a new work adventure. And in a positive spirit, I whittle what I've learned of foes down to one nugget I'll carry:

Be glad for those who love you...and pity the poor fools who don't. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Writing as an Act of Quitting

 Image result for quitting images

Overnight, it seems, I've become a far more prolific writer. From spending up to two years on short novels of 40K words, I finished the last book in 'just' eighteen months...and should finish the next in no more than a year. Long-range goal: one book every 9 months, with 3 months to recharge and plan the next.

As I say, these are short novels. I know a number of writers capable of writing 2-5K words a day. And I know several, such as Russell Blake, who can turn out 4-8 novels a year. Sci-fi writer Kevin J Anderson recently wrote a 200+K word novel in 11 weeks. So I'd be in a sorry state if I wanted to compete.

I don't. But I do want, and need, to put on speed without forsaking quality. Mystery readers want a series of books--with, preferably, 4-5 titles to start. And I've just published the second book in The Seattle BOP series that seems to ring readers' bells. Now I need to finish the third book to secure a market place.

So where does quitting come into all this? Once I had all the toys and tools I needed--good laptop, Dragon Naturally Speaking (to convert longhand to text), Grammarly Premium (to help edit and proof)--I still had two dragons to face.

                                                                 Image result for two dragons images                                       
First, I'd come to see myself as a slow, painstaking craftsman capable of writing just 500 words a day. Second, I go through five or more drafts and at the end of each of them, I'll spend weeks typing up my changes, creating a slew of new typos.

I came to the conclusion that it was high time to quit thinking of myself as slow and being such a crappy clerk. And, since I was major league quitter on other fronts--alcohol, tobacco, meat, sugar, coffee--I'd apply the lessons I learned there to the task before me now:

1) No compromise: There can never be 'just one more' cigarette or drink. Just so, there can't be 'just one day' without reaching my goal of 1K words. That is the road to perdition.
2) Create strong routines. I'd gone to the gym or dojo at the same time I'd have gone to a bar or sat smoking my head off in a favorite cafe. Now I start each morning off with a brisk walk, followed by 1000 words before work. No compromise. Every day.
3) One day at a time...yes, but with a sense of the big picture.

                                         Image result for big picture images

The stark reality may crush: a lifetime to go without booze or a smoke? What are three days or week next to that? Three thousand words drafted...but 58k to go? I've learned the importance of keeping a daily log so that I can see and feel the days or words I've accomplished so far. It's a primitive but solid way of reminding myself that this is really going down.
4) Rewards are necessary. Why? They reinforce this central truth: Quitting in no way deprives us. It empowers us instead. And so we should celebrate with a well-deserved reward.

It isn't hard. Just keep these words in mind:

                                         Image result for be a quitter images

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Weapons of Mass Construction

I know some young digital warriors who embarrass and befuddle me with their high-tech gizmos and space-age savvy. They write every word electronically, including shopping lists and daily journals.

I salute them. And, as an older warrior, I hope to put on a little more speed by blending
 a few of their toys with my own geezer strategies.

Allow me to share my new Weapons of Mass Construction, beginning with the newest.

1) Don't laugh. Pinky, the manly man's pen/pencil case from Yoobi, is ideal for a longhand-writing guy who's often on the go. Inside, it holds a slew of pens and mechanical pencils, highlighters and refills for both pens and pencils. On the back side, there's a separate pouch for a prized pen/pencil set used for composition. And, on the front, a small pouch contains a precious daily jolt: three squares of dark chocolate.

2) The Sanford PhD pen/pencil set. I'm as attached to these as any other writer to the main tools of their craft. The key difference here is that the PhD line has been discontinued. So it's imperative that I look after these since replacements on eBay can run $40 apiece.

3) Amazon's Basic notebook is an excellent, and affordable, version of the Moleskine brand, with good paper, solid binding, plus the inside pouch and outside strap. At $9.99 each, I'll use 5 or 6 of these in the course of a 40K word book. 

4) Here's a shot of the notebook in action. After months of notes and outlining, I've started the first draft, using the right side for writing and the left for notes toward the next day's work.

5) Dragon Naturally Speaking is a terrific tool for longhand writers. Several times a week I'll dictate all or most of the pages I've written. This way, I won't be stuck with a month or more of typing at the end of my first draft, most of my typing riddled with typos and other errors. Plus, I can dictate hundreds of words a minute instead of typing badly 60 wpm.

6) Grammarly Premium. 

Grammarly's free plan should lead you to try, at least, the premium plan. What a difference it made to me! By the time I sent out my new book to beta readers, GP had cleaned up about 98% of all typos and glitches, also questioning word usage, sentence construction, missing or unnecessary commas, etc. I got an annual subscription at a special rate of $50--and I'll definitely renew, even at full price.

7) Extreme energizer. Whenever I feel pussywhipped by the prolificness of certain writers, I take a gander at this list. Wonderful books have been written by writers with more modest words.