Sunday, August 30, 2009

Getting to the Root of the Problem

If a story is worth writing, it must be about someone rather than something. In the language of creative literature, we call that someone a character. If that statement seems redundant, think about what makes real life interesting. Why do we listen to what our friends have to tell us? We listen because their information is about the people we know, love, or who play an important part in our lives. A simple event like the crumpling of a car fender in a parking lot is worth telling because our friend was the driver, and we are immediately concerned about the effect it will have on him or her. Stories must be about characters, and that character must be doing something significant.

If a story must be about a character, it must tell us what the character wants. It can not be repeated often enough that plot is a verb. What does your character want, and to what lengths will he or she go to get it?

If your character wants something bad enough to interest us, there must be conflict. Conflict can be internal or external, but ideally, it should be a mixture of both. It should be presented in a manner that makes us care whether your character succeeds or fails. All of us at some time or the other have watched a movie and found ourselves cheering for the bad guy. What went wrong? We no longer care for the POV character.

If a story is to reach a satisfying ending, there must be change in the main character, and it must be something that is logical, satisfying, and desirable. That is not to say that the character must be triumphant, every enemy vanquished, or that he or she should live happily ever after. How do you as a writer accomplish this? As you craft your story, never stop asking yourself, what does your character want. Character, desire, conflict, and resolution. That is what a story is all about.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

When Is Enough, Enough

On one of my favorite writing groups, I asked the question: Description—When is enough, enough? I received some very informative answers that varied somewhat from writer to writer. When it comes to using description in a novel, we quickly learn that there is no definitive answer. There were a few things that my fellow writers mentioned that got me to thinking about the following:

(1) Know what your readers want. This is the concept of throwing pearls before the swine, as opposed to allowing someone to leave the table hungry. Who is your audience and what will they want to know before they finish the passage? Above all, make it interesting. If you like to read it, you can’t get enough, but if you don’t, it will be a chore to wade through a lot of excessive verbiage.

(2) Don’t create an information dump for an unsuspecting reader. There is an urge in every writer to just get all of the necessary background information out there where we can get on with the story. Rather than getting the job done in an expedient fashion, our efforts are likely to resemble meal time with a colicky baby.

(3) Let the description match the situation. Short and evocative is better than long and boring, but each passage should give the reader a feeling of been there and done that—or even better—now that I know how it is done, I want to try it too.

(4) Make sure it fits into the passage. We should never, ever, drag the reader out of the story by giving excessive explanations.

Is there a correct way to do all of the above? Probably not, but simply discussing the problem can cause us to steer a truer course. The next paragraph is a short passage I ripped from the first draft of a work in progress. It is raw and unedited, just as my muse whispered it into my ear. What is right about it at this point, and what is wrong? I don’t know the answer to that—for I am still working on it. Too short? Too long? Uninteresting? Pretentious? Dumping too much information? Read through the short passage and tell yourself how you would do it differently. I don’t need to know your conclusions. By the time you are through with it, I will have transformed it into something else—hopefully for the better.

Radford was on the phone when Sanders entered his workshop. It was a long, prefab building that looked as if someone from his television studio had a hand in its design. Three antique cars took up most of the space in the center of the room. The paint gleamed brightly underneath a row of florescent bulbs suspended from a vaulted ceiling. Radford lifted a finger to let him know he would be with him in a minute. He was a short man in his early fifties with a large head, deep set eyes, and loose clothing. He carried himself in a hesitant manner, but in a way that evidently impressed the members of the governing board of his network. He would have looked at home in one of his epic productions, seated on the front of a swaying oxcart with a crossbow across his knees. The workbench behind him was littered with greasy wrenches and an assortment of automotive tools that Sanders could not identify. The only thing that seemed out of place was the silver mounted picture of his family. The frame and the glass had been buffed to the same flawless sheen as the paint on three antique automobiles . . .

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Tags: Suspense Novel, Mystery, Police procedural

My New Suspense Novel Coming in September at Amazon!

A phone call in the early hours of the morning shatters the tranquility of Sheriff Daniel Barrett’s household when he finds out that the father of his fourteen-year-old daughter’s best friend has been the victim of a brutal homicide. Viewing the body at the scene of the crime convinces Barrett that there is a monster loose in their town, and the deranged killer is poised to strike again. Barrett is in a race against time with a lab full of evidence that seems to lead nowhere, and a growing suspicion that everything is more complicated than it seems.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Between Wyomings is the story of Ken Mansfield’s rise from his boyhood home in Idaho, to the top of his profession as a producer for Apple and at Capitol Records. Mansfield was a driving force in the record business during the thirty years of his career in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Nashville. He produced albums for many of the top stars in the profession, including Waylon Jennings, Jessie Colter, Glen Campbell, the Beatles, Don Ho, Roy Orbison, and Andy Williams. If you like music, you are going to enjoy the interesting anecdotes that bring these legendary recording artists to life between the pages of this book.

Mansfield tells his story while on a nostalgic journey of three months, that carried him across the nation to revisit the locations of his greatest accomplishments and failures. As he focused on what he accomplished and the things he failed to do, Mansfield realized that his driving ambition was actually a search for the true meaning of life. Finding Christ through Connie, the woman he met and married while working on Music Row in Nashville, was the pivotal point in his life and career. Mansfield’s story is one of triumph and failure, presented in a tasteful way that entertains and inspires. This is one man’s epic journey toward faith and the perilous road that led him there. You are going to love this book.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Did Someone Say Backup?

Tags: Creative Writing, Computers.

If there is anything worse than when Old Yeller died, it is losing your only copy of a story in progress. It happened to me not long after I bought my first computer. It immediately sent me into a mind-numbing panic. I had worked long and hard on my first novel and suddenly it wasn’t there anymore. I cautiously checked the system and discovered that the hard disk hadn’t crashed. After two days of work with a file recovery program, I was able to recover large portions of the file. I learned three important things from this experience. Backup, backup, backup! Computers have been around for a few years now, and everyone knows they should made backups of their files on a regular basis. There are many storage devices that range from floppy disk to flash, from external hard disk to Internet storage.

Backing up on some secondary device, however, does not solve every problem. There are virus programs that will conceal themselves on your system, then slowly move to your other storage devices in a stealthy fashion. On the fatal hour of some unknown date, the virus will strike, erasing or corrupting your active backup, then do the same thing on your inactive storage when you attempt to restore your files. These dangers require some advance planning, and it is good to do an evaluation of your situation before any of this occurs. There are books and articles in electronic magazines that will steer you toward a solution. There is one other thing that is just as difficult to cope with, and that is the embedding of unneeded control codes in your text.

In case you aren’t familiar with the role control codes play, here is a over-simplified explanation. Control codes are produced on the keyboard by pressing the CTRL key plus something else. In Microsoft Word, the CTRL key, plus the ‘S’ key, will cause the computer to save your file. There are other control codes that are placed between the words by your word processing program, which are intended to control the formatting of your text. It might be a code that tells the computer to print the next word in italics, or to indent the next paragraph five spaces. Most of the time this is transparent to the user, and you encounter few problems as the computer sorts out these commands. Once in the life of your great uncle, things don’t go as planned. Some pesky control code is inserted in your text and it does the unexpected. Usually this can be fixed by moving your cursor to the space where the problem occurred and hit the backspace to erase. You usually don’t need to retype more than a few letters to straighten out the problem. There are occasions when this doesn’t work. For some unknown reason, the offending control code might be in the previous paragraph. Erasing only a letter or a few words won’t solve the problem. One of the great features of Word Perfect 5.0, that so many of us used in the early days of home computing, was the ability to expose all of the control codes with a touch of a key. You could easily erase the offending code and you were back in business. Unfortunately, this is no longer a feature in word processing programs. The ones that show you the codes, usually show nothing except spaces between words and tabs.

With all of those gremlin ready to ruin your day, what is a writer to do to protect himself from viruses, misplaced control codes, and mechanical failure? One of the best things you can do is create a new file each and every day. I am currently working on a novel with the working name of The Relic. Each day as I start to write, I bring up yesterday’s file and rename it by typing the new name in the upper left hand corner of the first page. On the day I started to work on this manuscript, I typed, THE RELIC AA 07-09-09, then saved it under this new name to my hard disk. On day two, I reloaded this file and changed the name to, THE RELIC AB 07-10-09, and saved this file. Naming your file in this manner will protect you from various gremlins that might be prepared to gum up your creative system. The beauty of this becomes apparent when you check your disk and find the individual files all lined up in chronological order. On any modern computer, you are not going to fill up your disk. Placing all of your files in a separate folder will keep everything in an orderly fashion. If you find out on day 99 that you have written yourself into that proverbial corner, you can easily return to a previous version, or you might need something no more complicated than a cut and paste to get everything headed toward that final edit. Creating a new file takes no more than a second or two. It is better to be safe than sorry—but I bet your mother has already told you that. Good luck to you and happy writing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Tags: Book Reviews, creative writing, fiction.

Many writers wonder if it is worth the effort to get someone to review their books. If your name happens to be J.R. Rowling or James Patterson, there isn’t a problem because people are lined up and anxious to read an advance copy. For the rest of us, we have to seek out someone who reviews books, then cross our fingers, hoping the review will be positive. There are a lot of avid readers who never look at a book review. It is not until he or she is looking for a new author that they scan through reviews to see if their first instincts are correct. What do other readers think? A review might give you that information—or maybe not.

There are several websites on the Internet where people can volunteer to do book reviews. The people who run the show do not require any experience, the theory being that you—whoever you might be—collectively represent the ‘average’ reader. This is good in theory, but it doesn’t always work our this way in the real world. In one writer’s group, the owner of a small book press decided to do some research and see who some of the people were who were giving constantly bad reviews. He discovered that many of them were high school students. They picked sentences from other reviewers and cobbled something together that resembled a review, then added several caustic remarks. He concluded that their motive was to get a response from some well-known writer, and hopefully a personal contact.

Perhaps it would be good for review sites to include something about their reviewers age and who they are. I review for Thomas Nelson and for Amazon. I do not hesitate to sign my name to the review, and would not take any review seriously if the reviewer’s name was not there. I do not give caustic reviews for two reasons. It is an unkindness to the person who spent months writing the book, plus it serves little purpose in the marketplace. Some of you are probably wondering about the responsibility of a reviewer to warn the public away from a book that is obviously sub-standard. Here is what fellow writer Peg Phifer had to say on the subject:

“I do book reviews . . . It’s tough. I take my time and choose my words carefully. So I’m choosy about the books I will review. And those that submit books to me for review understand that if I don’t like the book, there will be no review, not even a bad one. I don’t believe in them. They’re hurtful. To my way of thinking, NOT doing a review sends a message of its own.”

You can find Peg Phifer's helpful and informative website at:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

To Touch or Not To Touch, That is the Question.

Tags: Characters, human behavior, creative writing.

An interesting quiz on Yahoo posed the following question, ‘When is a hug cool, and when is it awkward?’ Over sixty people responded to the survey and their answers brought up several points that should make an author think carefully about the interaction of his characters.

Anthropologist who have studied the behavior of people in various social situations have commented on the wide variations of what is acceptable human behavior, and what is not. All of us know people who are naturally ‘cuddly,’ and we know others who are ‘standoffish.’ You don’t have to be a careful observer of human nature to realize social behavior varies from one individual to another, as well as from culture to culture. Nor is it necessary to describe any of this in scientific terms in your story, for each of these behaviors is universally understood by most people. You can expect the same level of understanding from your readers. Nordic people seem to require more personal space than the average person from Latin cultures. It also varies from family to family.

People who perceive themselves as being among the elite in a given social situation, tend to invade the personal space of others, as well as effecting a speech pattern that projects their voice in a pleasing or non-pleasing manner, as perceived by the listener. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall attempted to develop a graph that demonstrated the various distances we need to maintain in a social situation in order to feel comfortable. The Intimate Space involves a circle of 1.5 feet and is reserved for embracing, touching, and whispering. Personal Space is 4.0 feet and is where the interaction occurs between good friends. Social Space is 12 feet and is where most people are comfortable interacting with acquaintances. Public space is 25 feet, used by a public speaker. There are many other things that give clues to our personality, such as the arrangement of furniture in a room to create barriers or give an open invitation to increased intimacy. Proxemics is the science that defines eight factors in non-verbal communications. The following is a brief explanation of each.

Posture sex identifiers: The postures in man/woman relationship, which might involve reclining, sitting, leaning toward the other, or making contact with a hand, etc.

Sociopetal-sociofugal axis: The position of one person’s shoulders in relationship to the other, which tends to change, moment by moment, as the encounter continues.

Kinesthetic factors: The physical distance between the parties in a touching, non-touching situation, which may increase or decrease.

Touching code: How the two people are touching, such as stroking, patting, squeezing, and the opposite, which might involve signals sent by tugging at the hem of a skirt, or adjusting a collar.

Visual code: Eye contact or the lack of it. A tendency to look past the other, looking downward, staring into the distance, or to make direct eye contact with the other. The pupil might dilate, which is generally understood as a signal of encouragement.

Thermal code: Heat from the body of the other person which becomes a factor in the encounter. This might be pleasant, or unpleasant.

Olfactory code: Odor detected from the body of the other, such as perfume, after shave, or simply the product of exercise or the environment.

Voice loudness: Soft to very loud, depending on the emotional situation or a change in the relationship of the two.

While this brief summation only touches the surface of body language, it might give you the inspiration to make your characters do more than simply walk, look, sit, or stand in the presence of the others. All of these factors, more than anything else in your story, create an opportunity for you to transform each scene from the commonplace to the sublime.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Gary Larson, was one of the most talented cartoonist of our era. His whimsical creations are as much a part of American folklore as Norman Rockwell’s paintings that graced the front cover of the Saturday Evening Post for more than four decades. When people view one of Larson’s cartoons, they wonder—along with the rest of us—how does he think of that stuff? It was not until I read a magazine article about his work, that everything came into sharp focus. Larson explained to the interviewer that his cartoons took two forms. They depicted animals doing human like things, or they involved nerdy people trying to puzzle out the simple things in life. When you think of Larson’s uncanny ability to connect with people from all walks of life, you began to see an interesting parallel with the writer who is trying to connect with the editors of various magazines. The all consuming question that haunts us is this. ‘What do they really want?’

There is one piece of often repeated advice that we writers pass around until it has the well-worn familiarity of a cliché.

Read The Magazine Before You Submit!

Let me expound on that idea before I continue. Read, Read, READ, the magazine before you submit! But we already know what the magazine is about, we often decide. They publish those dark horror stories, or they are interested only in tender romance aimed at young adults. It is the wise writer who realizes that an editor’s decision always goes beyond this into things that are subtle and difficult to define. The careful evaluation of a magazine’s stories might tell you that the editor always picks stories with a surprising twist at the end. Other editors want the action to dominate the center point of the story, with no surprise ending. While the stories in any given magazine might vary widely, there are distinct story elements that play a part in editorial decisions. It is up to the writer to discover what they are.

Which brings me to anthologies, which is what this article is supposed to be about. Gary Larson’s muse directed him toward two distinct areas of artistic expression. You might not be able to peel the layers back on any given magazine and expose their preferences, but there is a way you can break through into an acceptance of your well-crafted story. Part of the attraction of anthologies is the fact that they often include a wider range of stories than the editors would ordinarily select for publication. Why are the particular stories selected by the editor for inclusion into the anthology? Because they are well crafted, because they fall within the editor’s idea of what the magazine is all about, and most important to the reader and to you as a writer—they are selected because they are distinct and different. Read the magazine and while you are at it, read the magazine’s last anthology. Oh, and another important thing I should mention. I am looking forward to reading your next story . . .