Sunday, November 23, 2014

Magic and Gravity

           Spear Bearer Flash Fiction
       The big motorcycle, all black leather and chrome, leaned on its kickstand near the hitch of Gordon’s trailer. The magician sat on a short plastic stool and wiped a cloth over the fuel tank. Beads of sweat glistened on his shiny black scalp. “Hallo,” he said without turning when Manuel approached.
       Some kids had piano, violin or guitar lessons after school. Manuel had magic lessons.
       “What is magic?” Manuel asked. He had been coming to lessons for a week and he knew what magic wasn’t: card tricks, mirrors and boxes with false bottoms. That’s how illusionists worked. But Gordon taught magic. Gordon made things move with his mind.
       “What’s that?” Gordon asked, turning his head and looking at Manuel sidelong with a sparkling golden eye. “Magic?”
       “I mean,” Manuel said, running his fingers through his wavy black hair, “What makes the things move? Where does the force come from?”
       Gordon smiled and turned on his stool to fully face Manuel. Manuel could tell he liked the question. “It comes from everywhere. It comes from inside of you.”
       Manuel shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. I mean how does it work? Like, if I was studying science at school, what would they say?”
       Gordon laughed. “They’d say it was a lot of bunk.”
       Manuel frowned. He wanted to know.
       Gordon stopped laughing, but an ember of mirth remained in his eyes. “It’s a force of nature. An invisible and powerful force of nature. Like the wind.”
       Manuel sighed. “But I know what the wind is. The air is filled with millions and millions of molecules and when they hit my face I feel it. But what is magic?”
       “You are a bright little nipper,” Gordon said, his bright white smile beaming with pride. “I guess these American schools aren’t as bad as they say. What year are you?”
       “I’m in the fourth grade.”
       Gordon rubbed his chin for a minute. “I suppose it might be better to compare magic to gravity. Gravity holds us and everything to the earth.” Gordon pointed toward the sun that was about to dip below the horizon. “It also holds the earth in orbit about the sun, and the moon in orbit about the earth. It holds the sun in orbit around the center of the galaxy. It is invisible and works through the emptiness of space over fathomless distances. Magical, eh?”
       “But scientists know what gravity is,” Manuel said.
       Gordon shook his head. “No,” he said, “I suppose they have theories...”
       “But what about Newton? He discovered gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree.” Manuel saw a sudden grin form on Gordon’s face. He felt a little embarrassed because he didn’t know what was funny.
       After a moment the magician answered. “Newton came up with the Law of Universal Gravitation that describes the behavior of gravity. He discovered equations that describe the effect of gravity, but he never figured out what causes the force behind gravity.”
       Manuel looked at the trailer and again read the words that had been painted there when Gordon traveled with the carnival: The Amazing Gordon. “’re saying magic is a force like gravity?”
       “No.” Gordon shook his head. “I’m saying I don’t know what magic is any more than the physicists know what gravity is.”
       “You’re saying the scientists don’t know what gravity is?” Manuel didn’t believe it.
       “No,” Gordon said, slowly drawing out the ‘o’. “They talk about gravitons and string theory, and some other wonky ideas to boot, but it’s all just theory and thinking.”
       Manuel had always had a vague idea that there must be a definite explanation for things like gravity and the only reason he didn’t know was because he was young and hadn’t learned them yet. Now he felt uneasy and wondered if Gordon might possibly be right. He looked at the ground and imagined himself just floating up and away into the sky helpless and out of control.
       Gordon’s wrinkled face drew in with concern. “The universe is full of mysteries. There are many, many things you will never figure out.” The corners of Gordon’s lips turned up into a sympathetic smile. “But if you had everything figured out, wouldn’t the universe be a boring place?”
       Manuel met Gordon’s eyes and wondered if that was it.
       And Gordon returned the look.
       And that was it. Manuel had asked what magic was and instead of getting an answer he only had more questions. He wasn’t sure he believed Gordon about gravity...he had only known him a week...and it wasn’t that he thought Gordon would lie...but after all Gordon wasn’t a physicist. But Manuel had an uncomfortable feeling that there were things he thought he understood he hadn’t really even thought about. And maybe, he thought, magic was more in everything than he’d ever imagined.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Words We Choose

   I like words. Tiny words and sesquipedalian words. Hoary words and nascent words. Repurposed words like ratchet (maybe a corruption of ‘wretched’...used pejoratively in the sentence ‘that girl is ratchet’); words that once were in but now aren’t so phat. Portmanteau words (รก la Lewis Carol) like ginormous (which surprisingly dates back to 1948).
   But when writing stories I think it is best to keep it simple. The idea is to communicate and every time your reader needs to search he or she is taken out of the story. William Faulkner once said of Ernest Hemingway: “(Hemingway) has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” And Hemingway replied: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
   As Hemingway suggests, knowing the ‘ten-dollar words’ is something you would expect of a writer...after all, a writer reads a lot more than he or she writes, and a product of reading is a good vocabulary. But when it comes to word choice in your writing it’s not the time to be showing off your vocabulary prowess.
   I personally don’t think that less common words should be avoided altogether. There will be times when a particular word is the perfect fit and worth making a reader go to the dictionary. Even Hemingway made me pick up the dictionary at least a time or two.
   My biggest problem with those uncommon words is pronunciation. I’m a reader and when I look up words I am more interested in the definition than the phonetics. Unfortunately, I often make a fool of myself by mispronouncing a word.
   I think it might help to make poems in which a rhyme of the word I need to learn to pronounce is used. For example:

   He looked around as he pulled apart the brioche,
   and wondered if to spread jelly would be gauche.

   I had to cheat and use for that one (there isn’t a whole lot that rhymes with 'gauche' it turns out).
   Here is another:

   Abandoned with these manacles on me--
      My emotions flowed from
   Anger to fear to desperation and finally ennui.

   Feel free to share rhymes of your favorite uncommon words.
   If you are interested a fun look at English words and the language in general, I recommend Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue (English and how it got that way). After you read that you might want to follow it up with Bryson’s Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Twitter Newbie’s first approximation for a code of conduct

   I have been on Twitter many months now. I’ve read a lot of great articles, saw some great photos and art, and had a laugh or two. Along the way I’ve been working on my personal code of conduct.

Rule Number 1: I won’t try to sell you.

   I won’t be asking you to buy any of my novels or short stories on Twitter. Ever. Promise.
   For writers, musicians, and movie stars that have a large following, I’m sure they find Twitter is a great tool to keep in touch with their fans. But for the rest of us, I don’t think that Twitter works for direct marketing and I am almost positive that incessantly spamming your followers with BUY MY BOOK or whatever is going to produce much in the way of sales. It has the opposite effect on me.
   Only rarely do I check the general feed because when I do I am overwhelmed with a torrent of tweets. To get the most out of Twitter I have made a select list of my favorites. Instead of wading through a flood of tweets I just go check out my favorites to see if they have anything interesting for me. No one on my favorites list spams their followers with BUY MY STUFF tweets. I bet there are a lot of folks like me.
   I will tweet links to my blog. And maybe I will tweet links to Smashwords where you can get my novels and short stories for free.
   I want you to read my blog, my novels and my short stories. I hope you enjoy them. I hope you’ll post comments. I hope you will leave positive reviews.
   What I’m hoping to do is connect with people, not to sell them.

Rule Number 2: I won’t post just because I can.

   I’m not going to tweet the mundane. I won’t give the weather forecast; I won’t tell you I’m getting out of bed; I won’t tell you I’m having Shredded Wheat for breakfast.
   Most of my tweets will be retweets. There are a lot of interesting and creative people out there and I want to share their insightful, funny or beautiful thoughts.

Rule Number 3: If you’re not a troll, I’ll follow you back

   No, I’m not going to pay $5 for 20,000 followers. Who would do that anyway?
   And what about those people that follow you and immediately unfollow you after you’ve followed them? I guess they think people will think they are a superstar with their 100 to 1 ratio? What I think is that they’re trolls. Tools like ManageFlitter will help you throw those trolls back under the bridge.
   But if you are a real person then I’ll follow you back. I’ll look at your latest tweets. I’ll check out your blog if you have one. If you have content that I connect with, then I’ll add you to my favorites list.

Observation: On Facebook I have friends; on Twitter I have followers.

   On Facebook I connect with people I know; on Twitter I connect with people that have common interests. On Facebook I share photos of me and my family; on Twitter I talk about books and writing mostly.
   I hope this doesn’t rub you the wrong way if you have a Facebook fan page. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that. It’s
just not for me.

   Please find me @StepClary on Twitter and tell me your Twitter Code of Conduct.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

My Appeal to Writers for Lower Audio Book Pricing

   So...Amazon and Hachette Publishing have been having a big battle. The cynical side of me thinks that this is essentially two big companies fighting over a bigger piece of the publishing pie. Amazon want's a bigger piece of the pie so they want e-books to be priced low so more people will buy them and read them on the Kindle. Hachette wants the price high so they can sell their paper books where they get a bigger slice.
   Below I've included a link to the letter for you to read if you like. It's Amazon's appeal to writers to side with them in their desire for lower ebook prices. Maybe you'll feel inspired and join the email campaign against Hachette's e-book pricing policy. I found it interesting reading. My favorite paragraph was: "...e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We've quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger."
   Yeah, I mostly side with Amazon in this argument. But I think Hachette inevitably is just hurting itself, so in the end I see this as a problem that will eventually resolve itself. If I were an author under contract with Hachette I'd be writing a letter telling them that I think they are being greedy and narrow-minded. But I'm not, so I don't really care too much. I might be hurt as a reader if I want to read one of Hatchette's books, but then I'll just go find something less expensive to read. I have lots of good books to choose from.
   But here is something I don't hear discussed: lower audio book pricing. I'm an Audible subscriber and so I get books at a reduced price; but if it weren't for Audible the only audio books I'd listen to would be what I could check out from the library. And why are the audio books so expensive? Sure, an actor must be paid to read the book. There is usually a producer, a sound studio, technicians, and editors. Expensive, right? Maybe, but it is a non-recurring expense, and is it really much more expensive than what is paid to editors and artists and printers for a paper book? Anyway, arguing that the extra expense of producing the audio book makes it more expensive falls apart when you compare audio book prices to movie prices.
   Take Divergent by Veronica Roth, for example. On Amazon the Divergent audio book price (CD) is $12.33 and the movie price (DVD) is $15.96. The movie budget was $85 million. I have no idea what the audio book budget was, but I think it's safe to guess that it is a statistically insignificant fraction of $85 million. And for the newest book in the series, Allegiant, the audio book price is $20.59--well above what will be charged for the movie version when it is new.
   So that's my thoughts on audio book pricing. Let me know what you think.
   Here is that link to Amazon's letter I promised. A Message from the Amazon Books Team. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

How to Stop Your Self-help Book Addiction in 12 Easy Steps

   Here is an outline on my forthcoming book: How to Stop Your Self-Help Book Addiction in 12 Easy Steps

Chapter 1: Get off your lazy butt
   You’re not going to take that next step toward self-actualization sitting on the couch eating Twinkies and watching Dr. Phil. Or reading this book for that matter.

Chapter 2: It’s your own fault
   The economy sucks? The man wants to keep you down? You can’t express your true worth on a resume? But if that’s your excuse for sitting in your parent’s basement playing Halo with your e-buddies, maybe the person to blame is closer than you think. Maybe you should go out and get a job.

Chapter 3: Common Sense—Use your own for a change
   The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey

      1.       Be Proactive
      2.       Begin with the end in mind
      3.       Put first things first
      4.       Think win-win
      5.       Seek first to understand, and then to be understood
      6.       (Random buzz word)
      7.       One more habit because The 6 Habits of Highly Effective People doesn’t sound as good

   When you read that you think “yeah” and “yeah” and “wow that makes so much sense!” You know why? Because it’s what most people call common sense. Try it sometime. But maybe you should try this in baby-steps, because let’s face it, you are reading a self-help book on how to stop buying self-help books. That’s like buying a pack of cigarettes to help you stop smoking. (Okay, that might work if the cigarettes explode.)

Chapter 4: Don’t take yourself so seriously. 
   Believe me, I can’t take you seriously. Not after you bought this stupid book.

Chapter 5: Why don’t you try working? 
   So you still haven’t won the lottery? Maybe you need to look at your financial plan again. And writing a 2000 word “novel” and putting it on sale at Smashwords for $21.99 isn’t a plan. Success takes hard work. If you don’t want to work hard, learn to accept mediocrity.

Chapter 6: Okay, I don’t have 12 steps:
   So sue me. There are a lot of people out there willing to say anything to get a buck off you. I’m one of them.

   If you have more chapter topics let me know. I’d love to steal...I mean...hear them.

   I do hope people realize when I'm kidding...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Writing Advice

   Step 1) Read Strunk & White's Elements of Style.
   Step 2) Read Brown and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. Repeat.
   Step 3) Write a short story or novel and take it to the critique boards. Get your feelings hurt when people point out all the problems. Cry a little. Try again. Get your feelings hurt again. Try again. And again. And there will still be problems, but maybe not as many, and your skin has gotten thicker. So now you've learned how to take criticism. A lot of people live their entire lives without learning this skill--be proud.
   Step 4) Repeat Steps 1 and 2.
   Step 5) Keep writing. Keep editing. Develop a style; find your voice. Write more. Edit more. Send your novels to literary agents and publishers. Get form rejection letters. Realize you're not so special. Keep writing. Keep editing. Remember, this is what you like. Don't give up, because you've already succeeded. You are doing what you like.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Story behind The Globe

Katelynn and Rosie, the sisters in The Globe, are loosely based on my daughters Katie and Abby. I didn’t make it a secret. Maybe I should have.

At one point while I read the story to them, Katie burst into tears. “You don’t think I’m that mean, do you?”
Oops. And I thought I’d toned the fighting down a bit.

Yes, my daughters used to fight often. Screaming. Yelling. Pushing. And the inevitable crying. When I got involved I only made things worse.

I think I began writing The Globe as a sort of self-therapy. I had heard the word ‘hate’ used by each of my daughters and it broke my heart. So I wrote this tale of adventure where two sisters, who often don’t get along, are thrust into deadly situations. I wanted to see, as a father, the deep love that I know my daughters have for one another. By putting these characters, who are so very like my own daughters, through the trial, I was able to see this love in action, if only in fiction.

After Katie had her meltdown from the story I tried to comfort her. “Katelynn isn’t you...she’s had a hard life. Her dad left and never came back. She’s upset.” And I added, “Katelynn is the main hero of the story. You’ll see.”

So I was able to finish reading The Globe to Katie and Abby. There is no grand revelation in the story; Katelynn and Rosie don’t miraculously understand each other and resolve never to argue again. Instead, the reader will see that the girls both hate and love each other, though the love easily outweighs the hate. And in real life my daughters didn’t behave any better toward each other after hearing the story than before.

But I felt better. My self-therapy worked.

The Globe is now an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Quarter Finalist. The full novel can also be found on Amazon here.


Friday, May 23, 2014

ABNA--My Second Place Prize

I received my Publisher's Weekly review for my novel The Globe today. While not all the Quarter-Finalist's reviews were positive, I am very happy with mine. There are a few critical words at the end, but I don't think you can take a review seriously if it sounds like it is written by your biggest fan.

If you have a few minutes, please read the excerpt for the Globe (it's "a quick, fun read") and leave feedback. It might help me move on to the next round. Thanks.

Below is the complete review.

ABNA Publishers Weekly Reviewer

A quick, fun read, this novel is written in a unique and appealing voice. Katelynn and Rosie Pursiful are sisters, and like many siblings, they fight often. Katelynn, the older sister, always thinks she knows what’s best and never listens to Rosie. Rosie, meanwhile, just won’t go along with Katelynn even when it makes no sense not to. They live alone with their mother in a small apartment they recently moved to from the big house they all lived in with their father, George Pursiful, before he went missing. When an unexplained globe turns up at their house one day bearing George’s business card and a strange riddle, the girls are plunged headlong into a strange game that begins to explain the mystery of how their father disappeared. Aided by the spinning globe, the girls can be transported instantly to different parts of the world. Soon, the girls are forced to reckon with challenges as fearsome as a tar golem, the Minotaur in its maze, and invisible scorpions in order to defeat a man who holds them hostage in his game. They slowly realize that working together is the only way they can find their way home. While the novel may lack in suspense and depth of character, the worlds the girls visit are richly rendered and their grudging affection for one another endearingly sincere.


Monday, May 12, 2014

ABNA--The Real Prize is the Second Prize

In an earlier post--ABNA It's all over except for the crying--I suggest that the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest isn't so much an award as job application. Now that I've been involved with the competition for a while, I've modified my thinking on that. I still think that the Grand Prize and First Place winners are actually just candidates that have been awarded a contract, not terribly different from any other author signing with any other publisher. The Grand Prize of $50,000 and the four First Place prizes of $15,000 are actually advances on future sales. Altogether the prizes add up to $110,000, and Amazon will recapture some if not all of that money in book sales. In many cases, I hope, Amazon will earn profits from the novels that win.

So maybe the Grand Prize and First Place winners haven't exactly won a prize (though that is arguable since the advances are very generous for unproven authors), but for the 500 Quarter-Finalists there is a no-strings attached 'Second Prize': a professional book review by Publishers Weekly. A self-published author would have to pay $125 just to get a 25% chance at a professional editorial review by PW. Similarly, Kirkus charges $425 for a professional review. In the official rules Amazon says that the 'Second Prize' PW review has no cash value, and it is impossible to guess how much Amazon is paying for the reviews since they are sure to have cut a special deal. But I don't think it is too bold to say that each review is worth at least $400 to the author, so I estimate the value of the combined Second Place awards to be $200,000 (500 entries times $400). That's almost twice the Grand and First Place winner's advances combined. 
So...thanks Amazon. I humbly accept the 'real' ABNA prize: the professional book review by Publishers Weekly for my entry The Globe.  And on behalf of thousands of novelists looking to find an audience, a big thank you to Amazon, Publishers Weekly, and the Amazon Viners for the ABNA competition--it is so much more than a chance at a book publishing contract. 


Monday, April 28, 2014

Love Story

The best stories are love stories.

Wait a minute...I know what you are thinking: paperbacks with shirtless, athletic men and busty women in an intimate embrace.  No--that is not what I mean.

Of course, stories involving romantic love can be great. I think of the Spiderman movie and the opening narration: “But let me assure you, this, like any other story worth telling, is all about a girl. [Cut to first shot of Mary Jane] That girl, The girl next door. Mary Jane Watson. The woman I loved since before I even liked girls.”

Or it can be impossible love, like the love of a mouse for a princess in The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

Or it can be the love of a boy for his dogs, like in Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.

Or it can be the love of a hobbit for a world of beauty where people can live a simple life as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Sometimes the audience falls in love with the characters. In that first chapter of J.K. Rowling’s The Philosopher’s Stone we just want to storm into the Dursley’s home and rescue poor Harry Potter. We want to take him to a better place and tell him everything will be okay.

If it isn’t a love story, then it doesn’t matter how many interesting and exciting things happen, because if we don’t care about the characters, then we won’t care what happens to them.

What love stories do you like?

#Tolkien #Rowling #harrypotter #dicamillo #spiderman #lordoftherings 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Coming Out (I'm a novelist)

I came out on Facebook the other day. Most of my friends, and even some of my family, didn’t know.

I came out to one of my teenage daughter’s friends last night. I’m not shy, but telling people is uncomfortable...somewhat embarrassing. Revealing yourself and letting people have a glimpse into your soul is hard.

We were talking about John Green’s books and Divergent and...I just want people to know...especially people who care about books. Besides, my novel The Globe just became an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-Finalist. Getting people to leave feedback on my entry is a part of the competition.

Yes, family and friends, it’s time you knew it—I’m a novelist. It didn’t just happen overnight. I’ve been a writer since I can first remember, handwriting stories in spiral notebooks, typing them on mechanical typewriters that were boat-anchor heavy, moving on to the electric typewriters, and finally writing my first novels on a computer.

“Wow, you’ve written a novel,” some have said. They are impressed. But I don’t see what I’ve done as much of an accomplishment. I write fiction because I like to do it. Also, anyone with a computer can write a novel with a little time. The hardest part is turning off the TV. The real achievement is writing novels that people like. The real achievement is writing novels that will sell.

But what if I never find that ‘real achievement’? Like I said, I like to write. I like to dream, to put my thoughts into words, and I even love the labor of editing. I still win.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Accident

“Are you sitting down?” my daughter asks. Those are her first words after I answer the phone.


“You need to sit down.”

“Okay,” I say. My heart has gone from a trot to a thundering gallop in the space of a pregnant pause. “I’m sitting,” I say, a lie, and I am feeling my way to the sofa like a blind man, feeling my way past the piano and coffee table. My wife and daughter left about thirty minutes ago; my wife was driving my daughter to her TCC class.

“There was an accident,” my daughter says.

“Are you okay? Mom? Did something happen to mom?” I ask. My hand is trembling and I’m having a hard time holding the phone.

“It was a drunk driver,” my daughter answers. “He ran the light at 51st and Memorial. The van is destroyed.”

I don’t care about the van. I realize that my left hand is clenched; I open it to see a mark of red where one of my fingernails drew blood. “Where are you?”

“We’re at the hospital. The emergency room.”

“In god’s name, honey, is mom okay? Can I talk to mom?” I can hardly hear my own voice for the pounding of my heart in my ears.

“I thought it would best if I called,” my daughter says. “Mom’s no good at telling stories. She doesn’t know how to build tension.”


“We just have some burns from the airbags,” she says, the intensity now gone from her voice. “Police said we should come here to the emergency room just in case. Looks like I’m going to miss my Creative Writing class.”

I don’t yell. I’ve been focused on composure and trying to remain calm and I hang onto this. My hands still tremble, but only as an aftereffect. “Honey. Dear,” I say. I really want to hurt her for putting me through this and I think I know how. “Do you know what an anticlimax is?”

Not a true story...I just wrote it and posted it on my blog for fun. #flashfiction. I hope you enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

My first guest blog!!!

My wife was kind enough to let me do a guest blog on her website. How to count to 255 on your fingers (and not even use your thumbs!) Go to Clary's Math Lab and check it out.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bio Air Freshener

So I’m sitting in my living room watching Netflix with my wife.

“Was that you?” she asks, her nose crinkled up.

“No,” I reply, offended. “Was it you?”

Then we both look at the dog. Just like my wife’s uncle Weldon, the dog hasn’t mastered the ability to contain its bodily gases.

I think I would make a fortune if I could come up with a solution. What if you could feed your dog something that would turn those noxious gases into pleasant scents? Now imagine the scene again, my wife and I watching the boob tube.

“Do you smell that?” my wife asks.

Yes, I do. “Roses...with a hint of lavender?” We both look at the dog.

She breathes in deeply through her nostrils. She smiles. “Yes, it’s divine.”

Like I said. I’d make a fortune, right? I have experimented some. I mixed one of our Glade refill packages in with the dog’s Purina Dog Chow.

While cleaning the vomit off the rug I noticed the aroma of crisp McIntosh apples, cinnamon and nutmeg combined with the pervasive odor of bile.

April fools. I didn’t really do this and you shouldn’t either. You’d probably kill the poor dog.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why my blog is named The Discovered Story

So you’re reading a novel, or watching a movie, and it is getting intense. The character, or characters, are in trouble, and your heart is beating fast, your adrenaline is pumping, and the slightest sound might make you jump out of your seat. Your body is responding as if you are there with the if you are in danger. Your physiological response is, analytically speaking, irrational. These characters do not exist, the situation does not exist, and whether they die or not will not have a physical impact on your life. And yet the response is real, and it can be delightful, because you’re not just reading a book or watching a movie—you are living in another world.

But this heart racing, palm sweating, gut wrenching experience cannot happen if the reader or watcher doesn’t believe in what is happening. The characters and the situation must seem wholly real and rational and vivid; otherwise, the sense of empathy is gone and you are no longer wearing another person’s skin. Once again you are just sitting on the couch reading a book or watching a movie.

The story can’t seem fabricated and it can’t be must feel like a real thing discovered. The story must appear to be a Discovered Story or the ultimate story experience can never be achieved.

#writing #writers

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The World-Wide, Mass-Production Company of You

     I’ve read the discussions about how to price your e-book. Some people are very passionate about this. There are those that are outraged that indie authors are pricing their books for 99 cents or less. “Don’t you think your book is worth more than a cup of coffee?” they ask. 

     The problem with that question, to my way of thinking, is that it asks us to make an emotional decision on what price to ask. Your main premise in a business case shouldn’t be an emotional argument. 

     On the seller’s side, your e-book is a one-of-a-kind specially crafted product. On the buyer’s side, your e-book is the digital equivalent of a mass production product with world-wide distribution. Mass production items are priced low to maximize sales; the margin is low, but the return is good because the sales are high. 

     We may have worked for years on our books, writing and editing and rewriting. We may have paid graphic designers for covers and paid for editing. Maybe you’ve paid for marketing too. But we’re getting an insane margin—the worst I’ve seen is 33%. And the only person in your factory is you! In the mass-production business you’re making out like a bandit.

     I do know that the majority of indie e-book publishers aren’t making much money. Most of us are pretty much invisible to the e-book consumers. But pricing our books at a ‘fair’ value of $9.99 isn’t going to increase the odds of people finding (and buying) our books on the virtual shelves. 

     My opinion on this subject is still developing. I’ll be glad to hear what you think, one way or the other.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Story Behind Mimic

     If you tell me a ghost story I will listen attentively, because I enjoy ghost stories, but don’t expect me to believe you. As an engineer I believe in what I can see, hear, touch or what can be proven empirically. I have never read a document that produced a shred of evidence supporting the existence of ghosts.

     And our house there have been a couple of events that can’t quite be explained.

     My wife and I were lying in bed still awake though it was late. We heard our daughter running down the hallway toward our bedroom. She wore onesie pajamas and the plastic soles on her feet made a distinctive sound. When she reached our door she stopped. We waited for her to come and jump into our bed, as she’d done many times before. And we waited. And waited. Finally, I got up and checked. She was in bed sound asleep.

     If it had just been me I would have guessed I had a hypnagogic hallucination...but both my wife and I experienced this. To think this was a hoax by a two year old is ridiculous. Two year olds don’t have the coordination to tiptoe silently. They don’t have the acting skills to pretend they are asleep.

     Fast-forward ten years. My second daughter is sleeping in the top bunk of her bed. The bottom bunk is reserved for her friends when she has a sleep-over. She hears me come into the room and climb up the ladder. But it isn’t me. I’m out of town on business travel. And no one is there. It really disturbed her. After that, for at least a year, she always propped pillows up in the gap in the rails where the ladder goes.

     Two unexplained events in the course of ten years is hardly a haunting. What both events share is the sense of mimicry. And they mimic routines that held strong emotional power for me and probably for the other members of my family.

     I took these events and wove them into my Spear Bearer short story Mimic. As writers we are always recycling things from our lives to reuse in our stories, and this is just one example of that.

     Oh, and one last thing: My oldest daughter really did have an imaginary friend named Kracken. And don’t tell her, but he always kind of gave me the creeps.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

ABNA – It’s all over except for the crying

The Amazon Breakout Novel Award competition is closed. No more entries. No more editing of existing entries. It’s all over except for the crying.
My chances aren’t great…one in 2500 approximately for a First Prize award, about 1 in 10000 to win the Grand Prize. But heck, it certainly beats the odds for winning the lottery, right? 
I’m sure my entry isn’t perfect. I have gone over my MS numerous times and still I find those niggling mistakes. A few days back I was looking at the first page and I saw where the UPS guy delivers “a square brown box.” (Really Clary? A square box? Square boxes are so rare. And it is brown too?) Geez, I’m an idiot. How many more of these goofs are in there? How many will it take before the reviewer says “I’ve had enough!” 
So, my chances aren’t great. Besides, the ABNA award really isn’t even a ‘prize.’ It’s just an advance on future sales. It’s like a McDonald’s manager telling a pimple-faced boy, “Congratulations, you’ve won $12,000. Here’s your apron. Your prize will be awarded in weekly installments throughout the year.” Okay…not exactly the same. They don’t give the boy the $12,000 up front. (Would they see him again if they did?) 
Still, I want to win. I have fantasies about winning. I imagine Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos calling me, a tremor of emotion in his voice, saying that my novel The Globe is the best book he’s ever read. The fantasy is eerily similar to Ralphie’s in A Christmas Story when he imagines the teacher’s response to his Why I should get a Red Rider BB-Gun for Christmas essay. Remember the teacher grading the paper A++++++++++ with a dramatic flourish?
In any case, it’s been a good experience. ABNA really made me look at my pitch. Study it. Improve it. ABNA put a fire under my feet to edit and re-edit The Globe (and, yes, I know, I really should invest in an editor.) Finally, ABNA has encouraged me to work on my social networking. If, against the odds, I’m a finalist, my social networking platform will mean the difference between the Grand Prize and First Place. 
So…thanks Amazon. Even if I don’t make it past Round 1, the competition has really helped me.


Monday, February 17, 2014

ABNA Advice from Rysa Walker

The seventh annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) Contest is now open! They will be collecting submissions until they have reached 10,000 entries, so don’t wait too long to enter.

The winners in the initial stages will be determined by Amazon and Publisher’s Weekly experts, but Amazon customers will vote to determine the Grand Prize winner in the finals. If by skill and good-fortune you are one of the final five, your chances of winning the big $50,000 contract are going to depend upon your social media platform. You are going to need to be able to get the vote out!

At first blush this might not seem fair. You’re a writer, not a politician, right? But, like it or not, being a writer is as much about the marketing as the writing—at least to Amazon and other publishers it is.
So I asked Rysa Walker, last year’s Grand Prize ABNA winner, for advice.

Me: I checked out your web page but didn't see any ABNA how-to info. Any advice for building social platform before heading into final round?

Rysa: Hi, Stephen! Yeah, I've been so busy meeting the sequel deadline that I haven't had much time for writerly blogging. I see that you have some self-pubbed works. That's a good start. I joined a few indie writer groups like World Literary Cafe. They're great at helping retweet when you need to "get out the vote" at the later stages and the fact that there are stories out there voters can read other than the excerpt is a plus. I think it helped that my book was already self-published and had some reviews, including a Kirkus Indie review. And Facebook is a good tool as well. I even had business cards printed and sent them to friends & family with the info about the contest and how to vote. My sister probably handed out a hundred of those cards. :) And I tweeted a lot!!

Me: I can't thank you enough. It's too good not to share...would it be okay if I shared your reply on my blog?

Rysa: That would be fine, Stephen. Good luck with ABNA!

Me: Good luck meeting your deadline. I know you're busy and I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. Thanks again.

You can find Rysa’s book Timebound at I just finished reading another book and I was looking for something fun to read—I think this is going to fit the bill perfectly.

#ABNA #ABNA2014 #amazon #writing #writingcontest #timebound

Saturday, February 15, 2014

I want to be an e-book writer

“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?

“If you really like it you can have the rights
It could make a million for you overnight
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer
paperback writer”-- The Beatles

I sing this song in the privacy of my own home. It’s addictive. And lately I’ve changed the words to “e-book writer.”

Of course, I don’t have to want it anymore. I am an e-book writer. I just got my first check from Amazon: 26 fat ones. And I got a 5 star review from a reader on Smashwords—and not from a relative or friend either!

Okay, so I’m not wildly successful. But it is amazing what these small triumphs mean to me. It’s fun. I’m really enjoying myself. It’s hard work—about anything worthwhile you do in life can be classified that way—and it’s the most enjoyable work I’ve ever done.

It’s a great age we live in. Write on!

#writing #writer #Beatles #Smashwords #Amazon

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Know Thyself, Writer

If you thought my last blog was about people being snobs, YOU MISSED THE POINT ENTIRELY! My last post discussed the personal motivation a person might have to criticize another person’s grammar. The point wasn’t that you shouldn’t be so critical—go ahead and be critical. Revel in criticism if you like. Shout and gloat. Point your finger and laugh out loud. I don’t care.

All kidding aside, giving and especially receiving criticism is very important to a writer. Criticism leads to learning experiences. Each critique can be a gift if we learn to look at critiques with a dispassionate eye.

My previous post concerned the snobbery that most of us humans engage in and the emotional basis for it. I wanted you to get into your own head and analyze yourself.

Why? Because the only person you can truly know is yourself. You are the only test subject at your disposal. All your story’s character’s inner selves are an extension of your inner self. If you don’t understand yourself, then how can you really understand others? Empathy allows you to put yourself in your character’s shoes, but self-understanding allows you to translate your new perspective honestly.

Writing good characters requires self-awareness and empathy. If you are a sociopath, you’re probably not going to be a good writer. Sorry. There are other professions I understand you would be good at: thief, assassin, or dictator.

“Know thyself,” the ancient Greek maxim goes. It is the first step to truly understanding others. And writing good characters.

#writing #writer

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Grammar Snob

We all know the snob. The epicurean food snob, the sommelier wine snob, the operatic music snob, and so on. These people know more than I do in their chosen subject and boy do they let me know it.

And, I’ll admit it, I’ve been the grammar snob on occasion. I wince when I hear someone say “irregardless.” Yeah, spell check put a big red line under that. It’s not a word. Ironically, the speaker always knows the word “regardless,” but for some reason chooses to use this imposter word instead.

Don’t I now feel smart? Yes, by pointing out that someone has done something stupid, I, by comparison, feel smarter. This is, in my opinion, the demonic charcoal soul of snobbery. We do it to make ourselves feel superior.

I do it too. Not just with grammar either. When driving (my wife will vouch for this) I’m at my worst. For me, as George Carlin famously said, there are two types of other drivers on the road: the idiots drive slower than me and the jerks drive faster.

So when you point out to your friend that the word “decimate,” which he just used in describing the football game, actually means “to kill one in ten,” are you really trying to help him? Or does your factoid say more about you than him?

And when you demonstrate your mathematical skills and explain that the term ‘exponential’ doesn’t actually apply to Google’s stock growth this year, perhaps you should wonder why it matters to you so much.

I intentionally included some grammatical errors in this blog. I want you to feel better about yourself. Please feel free to point out each error in the comment section below.

#writing #writers #grammar

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Google Drive Saved My Life

Last month robbers broke into our home while we were at work. They wore black hoodies and the hoods hung over and concealed their faces. My neighbor, who watched the whole thing, said, “You couldn’t tell if they were black or Mexican or white.” They drove up in a black sedan. A tall thin one--probably a woman--went to the front door and knocked while a stocky guy looked through our garage window. Once it was established that no one was home, the stocky guy went to the front door and with practiced efficiency put a shoulder into it hard enough to break the frame. They took my laptop, my PS3, a lockbox containing a pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather, and a bunch of games and movies.

I can live without all that stuff. It’s a bummer, but I’ll live. But the laptop is where I write my stories...years and years of work on the hard drive...losing that would be like losing years of my life. Okay, I’m not a fool, I have everything backed up in multiple places. But what about the work I’d done since the last remote backup? I was lost; I didn’t know how long ago I’d done the backup. I knew I’d never be able to reconstruct what I’d lost; it would all have to be reimagined. And how many things would I think I’d done, but had actually disappeared with my computer?

But my daughter told me I should be using Google Drive some months ago. Have I told you how much I love my little girl?

I lost nothing. Not one paragraph, sentence, word or period. I bought a new laptop and, after installing Google Drive, I’m right back to where I was. So if you are a writer I’d highly recommend Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud, or Microsoft’s SkyDrive. I’m not saying that you should back up your files to the cloud...I’m saying you should work in the cloud. Your backup files should be on your computer or external drive. The cloud is where your files should live.

Another lesson I learned that can be applied to my writing: people’s actions are sometimes unexplainable. My neighbor is a good guy. Let’s call him Bob. A couple times my dog has gotten out and Bob has brought her home. We’ve had many long conversations. I went to his wife’s funeral. I admit I can’t say I know all my neighbors, but I know Bob, and I trust him. But on the day of the robbery I guess Bob just wasn’t thinking straight. When he saw the robbers breaking in, he tried to call my other neighbor because he didn’t have my number. Yes, instead of dialing 9-1-1 Bob called my other neighbor (who coincidentally was out of town on a business trip). Later Bob told me and the policewoman, “I didn’t know if they might be people you know.”  Hmmm....

Maybe there is a reason that ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ Maybe it is because stories need to be believable...they need to have that Discovered Story feel in order to be enjoyed. Real life—truth—doesn’t have to be believable. It just is.

#GoogleDrive #SkyDrive #iCloud

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Visitor from Oman

We had a guest for Thanksgiving and Christmas this year: my daughter’s dorm roommate from Oman. It was a learning experience for us as we all tried to make her feel comfortable in this place that is so very different from her home. I learned what constituted halal food, and tried to make sure there was enough available so she wouldn’t go hungry. We had to explain to everyone in our families that it wasn’t permitted for a man to touch her (not even a handshake), and in our house I had to be careful to avoid intruding on her when she might not be wearing her hijab. It was a new experience for her because she had never celebrated Thanksgiving or Christmas. And before coming to Oklahoma she’d never seen snow either.

I think about how brave it is for someone to travel half way around the world to study in a foreign country, where people talk a different language and where so many people have vastly different customs.

I also think about what a profound affect this will have on her.

As I worked on putting the dishes in the dishwasher, my wife and I talked to her about life in Oman. She said they lived in a big house with 3 or 4 bathrooms, but they didn’t have a dishwasher or a dryer, and her description of the washing machine made me think it was a mechanical contraption. I asked if her dad or her brothers ever helped with these household chores and she just laughed and shook her head.

I wonder, how could it not change her to see men and women as equals in the household? Will the girl who left Oman six months ago be the same one that returns this summer?

As a reader and a writer, I like stories in which the characters evolve and grow as they face life-changing situations. Naturally, it piques my interest when I see people in these situations.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Do What You Love

“If you could be paid to do something you really love, what would you do,”
Professor Daniel Gilbert asks in a Prudential television commercial. One woman responds, “I’d be a writer.”

I understand the sentiment. The romantic idea of being a writer, of working on your own schedule, of having an audience, of being anonymously famous...yes, that is what I want. But for most of us that is just a dream. But still we write. Why do we do it?

For me it’s just something I like to do. It’s fun to allow your imagination to run wild, to see characters spring to life and grow, and to sometimes be surprised at where the story takes you. My wife and daughters play instruments and sing and make art; my main creative outlet is writing. Everyone should have something in their life that inspires.

And, I’ll admit it--I would like to someday be a paid writer. But if I never get a penny, I am nonetheless a writer, and ultimately that is enough for me.

If you are a writer, I’d like to know why you write.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tolkien vs Lewis

Tolkien vs Lewis
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” – J.R.R. Tolkien.
I’ve heard that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends. In any case, they both were faculty at Oxford. I’ve always wondered...did they ever talk about Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles? It seems the conversation might have been a little uncomfortable, judging from the quote above, since Christian allegory is at the very heart of the Narnia tales.
I love it when Tolkien says, “I much prefer history – true or feigned – to the applicability to the thought and experience of the readers.” Tolkien, it seems, was also a fan of the Discovered Story.
Do I think Lewis’s use of allegory was wrong? No. I’ve read the books numerous times and I really enjoy them. But I think the allegory puts a layer of indirection between the characters and the reader. When the reader begins to recognize the allegory, then the reader is drawn out of the story to contemplate the allegory.
So here is my imagined conversation between the literary greats:
“So, Jack [Lewis], this lion named Aslan...he’s actually Jesus then?”
“Yes, Ronald [Tolkien].”
“And you don’t think that’s somewhat heavy-handed?”
“As if your war in Middle Earth isn’t an allegory for the World War.”
“Certainly my experiences in the war are applicable, but no, it isn’t allegory. The reader is free to come to his own philosophical conclusions.”
I understand that the two had a falling out at some point. Maybe this is where the trouble started.