Monday, November 3, 2014


AS I WRITE THIS, we are three days into the 2014 edition of NationalNovel Writing Month. The purpose of NaNoWriMo (as it is known) is to create a novel of at least 50,000 words in length, which means one has to average 1,667 words a day throughout the month of November.
   So how many words of fiction have I written in the last three days?
   And that doesn’t concern me in the least.
   You see, while I have occasionally signed up for NaNoWriMo in the past, mostly to offer encouragement to friends who were taking their first crack at book-length fiction, I don’t believe I ever did so with the intention of actually trying to churn out 2,000 words a day (which would have to be my goal, as I don’t write on Sundays). And this year, I have come to a conclusion that has been festering for a few years … namely that NaNoWriMo is basically a bad idea overall.
   I feel that way for three reasons.
   The first, and most obvious, is that a novel one writes in a month is almost certainly going to be the literary equivalent of a train wreck.
   Yes, I know … Hemingway wrote TheTorrents of Spring in just ten days. But it’s the literary equivalent of a train wreck as well, and it’s widely believed that it was deliberately created as such. When he submitted that manuscript to his then-publisher, Boni & Liveright, they rejected it, releasing Hemingway from his contract with them. Hemingway claimed that this was never his intention, but the fact remains that The Sun Also Rises, which would otherwise have belonged to Boni & Liveright, was sold instead to Scribner’s—a much more desirable publishing house.
   And yes, I know that there are a few hundred traditionally published novels claimed by their authors to have been written during NaNoWriMo. But of that number, I suspect some were merely begun during the November event, others simply worked on during that time … and it’s entirely possible that a few authors merely claimed participation to gain some word-of-mouth publicity.
   Even if all of those books were legitimately created during National Novel Writing Month, they amount, if my math is correct, to fewer than twelve hundredths of one percent of the manuscripts by participants since the event began in 1999. So at least 99.88 percent of what’s written during NaNoWriMo receives no reaction from legitimate publishers other than a gag reflex, and creating something like that hardly seems like a good use of time.
   The sad fact is that most of the novels written at any time of the year are, from a readability standpoint, rubbish … as are a significant fraction of the novels that are ultimately published. Forgive me for being a spoilsport, but it hardly seems as if we need a special event to add to those statistics.
   The second reason I’m not keen on NaNoWriMo is that its primary purpose seems to be the creation of trophy novels: books written so one can cross “write a novel” off one’s bucket list.
   The issue I have with this—writing a novel in order to call oneself a novelist—is that it inverts the proper order of things. The real reason one should be writing a novel is to entertain and intrigue readers.
   Was this the reason I got into fiction? Of course not. I wanted the recognition as much as anyone else. But I quickly realized that one does not gain recognition merely by writing. One gains it by being read, and one does that by creating something that is eminently readable.
   The third reason I’m not fond of NaNoWriMo is actually my primary reason, and this is that the basic purpose of the event lies at odds with a fundamental characteristic common to every successful novelist I have known.
   I’m talking about grit.
   “Grit” is an old-fashion word that refers to a particular strength of character—the ability to devote oneself to a goal that cannot be reached quickly or without sacrifice. In terms of the novel, grit is the willingness to sit down at the keyboard every morning, even though you may have known how the story ends now for months, or even for years. It is the ability to write the book and make it moving and beautiful even though you may be sick of the story and wish it would simply go away.
   And 30 days is far too scant a time in which to determine if you have something like that.
   So if you’ve gotten into NaNoWriMo for the camaraderie, or the novelty, or simply because you don’t care to watch what’s being offered on TV this month, then more power to you.
   But if you truly want to be a novelist, you are better off purchasing a truly comfortable chair, and thinking of November as nothing more than the first month of the rest of your life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: A Banquet of Beginnings

AS YOU HAVE probably assumed by now, I am totally sold on my Amazon Kindle.  
   I am on my second one. My first Kindle was the keyboard model; it had both wifi and 3G cellular connectivity, and I vividly remember being on a cruise ship leaving the Azores, leaning out over our stateroom balcony railing to catch the last vestiges of a cell signal so I could download a guidebook for Lisbon, our next stop.
   A little over two years ago, that Kindle bit the dust when it fell off the back of our couch (we live in Florida: ceramic tile floors), so my wife took pity on me and bought a replacement, the keyboard-less model. And now I am trying to figure out a way to kill it, so I can get a Kindle Paperwhite (I know, I know ... thou shalt not covet ... I'm still a work in progress).
   As an author, I know that Kindle ebook sales dwarf every other form of digital delivery. 
   And as an author, I use my Kindle as a tool (you can also do this with virtually every other ebook reader) to read the beginnings of books.
   Why the beginnings? Two reasons, really.
   The first is that the beginning is the free sample that Kindle will allow you to download when you are considering the purchase of the book. So (provided most of that beginning has not been taken up by front matter) if that book is a novel, you'll usually get most, if not all, of the first chapter. Sometimes more. This is far more cost-effective than buying every book that piques my interest, and it's much more efficient than a trip to the library.
   The second reason I browse beginnings is because, particularly in this age of free digital samples, that first chapter has a great deal to do with whether the reader is going to buy, or engage with, a book ... especially a novel. By perusing the beginnings of dozens of books every week, I get a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn't, and that is a very good sense for a novelist to have.
   Many ebook delivery platforms, Kindle included, also have two bestseller lists: one paid and one free. If I spot a book that looks interesting on the free list, I will download the entire book. That said, if anyone at Kindle is analyzing my reader use, they will probably notice that most free books spend no more than five minutes on my reader. Most free ebooks are self-published by writers not yet ready for prime time, and if this becomes apparent in the first page or two, I delete the book to keep my library screens down to a manageable minimum. The free "bestseller list" is mostly like the remainder table at a bookstore, and you don't want to reflect that; you want to emulate the books that sell well. Still, some very good novels occasionally show up on the free list; generally these are put up by publishers trying to promote the author's newer work.
   If you don't have an ebook reader, you can still browse samples. Most platforms allow you to download an app so you can use your smart phone, tablet or computer (i.e., whatever you are reading this on right now) as your e-reader. By going to the online store and clicking on the "send free sample" button, you can still browse beginnings at your leisure.
   All good writers are good readers first. Get acquainted with how great books tend to begin, and you can't help but up your game.
   And now, if you'll excuse me, I am off to balance my aging Kindle on the back of the couch.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gone Sporadic

THIS HAPPENS from time to time. After blogging twice a week for most of this year, I now feel the need to dive into a fresh project that is going to keep me writing fiction (as opposed to writing about writing fiction) for the foreseeable future.
   In keeping with what I recently said about sharing news of works in progress, I won't go into detail on what I'm working on. Just know that I am writing, and I trust you are doing the same.
   This ain't goodbye. As nuggets occur to me in my work, I'll surface from time to time to post them here on the blog. And when I do, I will tickle the social media to let you know I've posted something fresh. But the twice-a-week time-release capsules are going  into hiatus; I need to spend this creative time ... well ... creating.
   If this blog has been useful to you, or if there is something you've been wishing that I'd comment on, I hope you'll write it in the "Comments" section below. It will be a help to me when I come up from air from the fiction.
   In the meantime, strength to your writing arm.
   Now ... go craft something amazing.

Friday, August 8, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: The Best Buck a Writer Can Spend

MANY THANKS TO everyone who downloaded my free ebook earlier this week. I'm looking forward to hearing what you thought of it. And now I'd like to recommend that you spend 99 cents to purchase another ebook.
   No; it's not one of mine. It is The Complete Works of Mark Twain.
   Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man who wrote under the Mark Twain pen name, was easily one of the more extraordinary individuals of his time. In a period when most Americans never traveled more than 200 miles from the place where they were born, Clemens participated in the California gold rush, visited Hawaii, took part in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by way of Europe, married a wealthy woman and had four children with her, spent many years in Europe, made a trip around the world, and built and lived in two fabulous mansions. 
   He also lived with great tragedy, losing virtually everyone he loved. He convinced his younger brother to join him in the riverboat trade, and the younger Clemens was killed when a boiler exploded. His wife and all of his children except one preceded him in death, and the one who survived him did not particularly care for him. 
   But it is writing, and not his life, that makes him essential reading for aspiring novelists. In an era in which American novelists were expected to write like Englishmen, Twain wrote about American characters, using the American vernacular, from an American point of view. Kurt Vonnegut believed him to be the only saint of American writing, and William Dean Howells called him "the Lincoln of our literature." And whether you are reading this right now in America, or Australia, or Germany or Paraguay, there is a lesson here; readers love a fresh voice that shapes and echoes their perspective.
   So ... no plans for the weekend? Read Twain. Be transported. And be inspired.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Free Ebook -- PIRATE HUNTER 8/6/2014

WE'LL KEEP THIS short and (hopefully) sweet. Pirate Hunter is free on all major ebook platforms Wednesday, August 6th.

Please download a copy and tell me what you think of it! Comments section is below ...

Friday, August 1, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Accountability?

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM SAYS that, if you want to reach a goal, you should share it with people, so they can help hold you accountable.
   I'm not sure that's the best idea with a novel.
   For one thing, some psychologists say that the whole idea of sharing-to-motivate can backfire. If you say you're becoming a novelist, people who love you may praise you for doing that, and the gratification that results can play a trick on your psyche: in your mind, you have already accomplished what you are being praised for, and so become less inclined to actually write the book.
   At the other extreme, people in general have no idea how long it takes to write a novel. So if you share your goal and, four months later, people ask how you are doing and you say you only have three chapters written ... the look they give you may so discourage you that you give up the entire idea.
   And finally, writing a novel is an intensely private act that results in a very public outcome. Oftentimes, inviting others into that extremely private space just somehow seems wrong. I know that, on those rare occasions when I've been able to keep the news of a novel-in-progress to myself, I've been happier in my work.
   So ... are you writing a book? That's great.
   But you just might want to think before you go sharing that news with all and sundry.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: The Lyric Start

I'VE SAID BEFORE that writing is recorded sound, and that this is the general difference between great writers, good writers and writers in general. When you're enjoying a book, part of the reason is that the writing sings to you. You enjoy the experience of mentally hearing the words.
   So what do you do on those days when you seem to be tone-deaf?
   It happens to all of us. At least I know that it happens to me.
   And when it does happen to me, I usually find the best course of action is to stop writing fiction, get out a pencil and notebook (for some reason, this works better away from a keyboard) and start writing poetry, instead.
   Now, don't go Googling for published poetry by Tom Morrisey. You won't find any; I don't write poetry for publication. But what I do write poetry for is to tune up my writing instrument and get back in touch with the sound of the words and the ways they work together. Usually I write blank verse, and the subject can be anything ... if I don't have a subject, I will look out the window and write a poem describing what I see. Usually, it only takes a few minutes of this to get my writerly voice back into my head, and then I can go back to fiction.
   This technique is not unique to me. I understand that Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both wrote poetry to get the current running (the difference being that what they wrote was good enough to publish). And I imagine they did it for the same reason I do it ... it works.

Friday, July 25, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Nom de Notebook

I DON'T WRITE my novels under a pen-name, and I know very few writers who do. But I get asked about it frequently, which makes me wonder if, to the general public, writing fiction seems a craft so despicable that it is best performed anonymously.
   The writers in my circle who do use pen-names have their reasons. One case is a husband-and-wife team who didn't want a double-byline on their books, so they created an alter-ego to stand in for the two of them. And another case is a writer who established himself in one genre and then switched to another; he didn't want to disappoint readers who might buy his books because of name recognition, expecting his previous genre.
   Writers have all sorts of reasons to use pen names. Stanley Leiber believed he would one day write full-blown novels, so when he began writing comic books, he shortened his name to a nom de plume, "Stan Lee." That name became so well-known that he adopted it legally.
   The author of The Sun Also Rises was originally "Ernest Hemmingway" (double "m"). That was the family name, but he didn't like the way it looked on a book cover, so he changed it to "Hemingway."
   Sometimes it's the publisher's idea. Joanne Rowling  created the pen-name, "J.K. Rowling" after her publisher expressed concerns that boys might not want to read her books if they knew they were written by a woman. Jo didn't have a middle name, so she adopted her grandmother's name (Katherine), and "J.K. Rowling" was born.
   Then, when she switched genres and wrote The Cuckoo's Calling, Rowling adopted yet another pen-name (Robert Galbraith). But similarities in style were noted between that book and the Harry Potter series ... enough so that one English newspaper commissioned a comparison using linguistics software. It suggested an extraordinarily high probability that the author was Rowling and, when confronted with the evidence, she 'fessed up. But Rowling continues to write as "Galbraith," and predicts that eventually his titles will outnumber those in the Harry Potter series.
   Many years ago, when I wrote my first book (a climbing travelogue called 20 American Peaks and Crags, now long out of print), I did so under the name "Thomas Morrisey." But these I do all of my writing under the name I'm known by to my friends: "Tom."
   Would I ever use a pen name? If I made a huge genre switch, I would consider it. But other than that, my body of work is directly linked to me, and that's probably the way it will stay.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: In High Places is FREE July 22nd

IF YOU HAVE READ my novel-writing how-to, The Novel and the Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft (link at right), you know that my 2008 novel, In High Places, is used as an example through much of that book.
   And if you've been intending to buy In High Places, but your book budget hasn't allowed it, you are in luck. Today only (July 22nd, 2014), In High Places is FREE on all the major ebook platforms.
   So pull it up on your ebook reader and buy before midnight. Or, if you are away from your reader right now, here is the link to the title in Amazon's Kindle Store.

Friday, July 18, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: The Actual Writers Conference

WHEN I LIVED in Michigan, the county library system held an annual writers conference, one that they asked me to teach in. They also asked me to serve on its board, which I did, thinking that I would have all sorts of expertise that might be useful to them. But when I got to my first board meeting, I discovered that they already knew something that most writers-conference organizers either do not know, or don't apply. And the thing they knew was this: to have a successful writers conference, you need to have a plenary speaker that people have actually heard of.
   This is something that all writers conference say they do, but few actually succeed at. Conferences run for profit often aim for an A-lister, but then discover that, to turn a profit, they have to settle for someone further along in the alphabet. And university writers conferences often fall victim to inbreeding, with academics convincing one another that Graham or Desdemona really is extremely well-known, even though the writer in question may have written exclusively for the sorts of magazines whose sole purpose is to occupy shelf space in university libraries.
   Our little county library system avoided these traps. 
   First, we were a non-profit, so every penny we made on registrations went straight into providing content for the conference; we even held the conference at the local Carnegie library, so we wouldn't have to spend a cent on facilities. We also sought sponsors to make up the shortfall between what we took in and what we spent to put on a good conference.
   And second, our board had an unwritten no-BS rule. If you proposed someone as a plenary speaker and had to spend time explaining who he or she was, then you were not proposing someone in whom the board was interested. As we had librarians on the board, we also had a darn good handle on who our county residents were reading, and that played into our decisions as well.
   Following these simple guidelines, we got people such as Elmore Leonard and Audrey Niffenegger as our plenary speakers. 
   When we did this, something amazing happened. Really good writers came out of the woodwork to teach at our conference, partly because they wanted to hear the plenaries, and partly because it looked as if we knew what we were doing with our conference. Published writers came to take our workshops. The atmosphere was positive and not desperate, and when you sat down to lunch, chances were that there was someone at your table who could offer significant insight into an area of writing that you wanted to know more about.
   So these days, when people ask me about writers conferences, I ask them one question: have you heard of, and do you admire, the person who's headlining the conference, or was it someone you had to Google?
   Because, if it is the latter ... keep moving ... nothing to see here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: The Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel

EARLIER THIS WEEK, I woke up and wrote this in the notes app on my iPhone:

The years just after the war were especially hard on the general, who wore civilian clothing like a penance.

   That's an opening line. Whether it is to a novel, or a novella, or a short story, I'm not sure, because that is all I have written so far. But I now know a lot more about that story, because I have been thinking about the general ever since I wrote it. 
   First lines are like seeds: they get the story started. And that is why I have that collection in my notes app ... I think of it as the greenhouse, where I start growing things that may eventually be stories.
   I haven't written more about the general yet because I don't like to sit down and really start cranking on a story until I know how it ends. That gives me a destination for what I'm writing, and knowing where I'm going means I throw away less of what I have written, although I still throw away quite a bit. In fact, more often than not, I throw away that first line, because the line that gets me thinking about the story may not be the best one with which to start it. And that's fine; seeds often cease to be, once the plant begins to grow.
   In workshops, a great exercise is to have everyone come up with a great first line, and then exchange them with a neighbor, who expands the first line into a paragraph. And that initial paragraph is almost never what the author of the first line was thinking about, because each person will start grasping and toying with that initial thought in his or her own way.
   Do all of my stories begin this way? No ... they do not. Frequently I will think of an ending first, in which case it is easy to begin writing, because I just follow the story back to a starting point and begin work. But for those days when it is not that cut-and-dried, it is good to know that I have all those seedlings in the greenhouse, waiting to be cultivated into something larger and more complete.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Wind River is FREE July 8th

I OFTEN USE my own books as examples of technique on this blog. And Wind River is one that I use as an example of taking "show, don't tell" fully to heart.
   Well, today only, that book is available free on Kindle, Nook and all other major ebook platforms.
   So we'll keep this post brief. Click the link above, get your free novel, start reading that and stop reading this.
   Fair 'nough? We'll see you on Friday.

Friday, July 4, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Financial Independence as a Novelist

IT'S THE DREAM that most unpublished novelists share: selling your novel (finally), quitting your day job, and living the good life ever after.
   So ... can you do that?
   The answer is "Yes," but as you may imagine, there are a lot of conditions attached to it.
   For instance, income from a novel tends to arrive in chunks widely separated on the calendar. If you are fortunate enough to sign with a publisher who pays advances (some do not), you'll typically get half of the advance upon signing a contract, and then the other half when the manuscript is agreed by all parties to be in final form (some publishers do this in thirds: a third on signing, a third on delivery and a third on acceptance). After that, if your novel earns out its advance (and the odds are against this with a first novel), it might be a year or more between your final advance check and your first royalty payment. 
   Even if your advance was lucrative enough to live on for a year or more, it takes tremendous financial self-control to make it with such sporadic income. It is not uncommon for first novelists to wind up in dire straits; in fact it is so common that I know of at least one publisher that requires first novelists to present proof of a second source of income as a condition of their contract.
   There are things that will help. One is to sign a two-book contract and have both manuscripts ready at signing. This will increase what you have to work with, and probably space out the advance checks a little more.
   Even better is to have three years' worth of income in the bank and ready to live on (separate from your 401k or retirement savings) before you sign that contract and deliver your two manuscripts. Saving up that sort of nest-egg takes time and discipline, but it does a tremendous job of helping to keep the wolf from your door.
   Now, here's the funny thing; while I know some novelists who live entirely in the income from their book-length fiction, most do not. Some get a second income from teaching. Some work as freelance editors. Some (I'm one of them) hold down full-time nonfiction writing gigs; a measure that helps put important things such as health insurance on the table.
   In fact, during the decade-and-a-half or so when I worked full time as a freelance writer, fiction was oftentimes the majority of my income, but it was never the entirety of it. Then, as now, I wrote travel stories, not only for the extra money, but for the fact that doing so allowed me to research the settings for my novels at no expense to me. And then, as now, I wrote speeches because (in addition to the extra income) doing so required me too write in another person's voice, which helped (and helps) to make my fiction sing.
   Particularly in his later years, Mark Twain made most of his money on the lecture circuit. The poet Wallace Stevens never quit his job with an executive with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote for the movies. They knew what many novelists learn as they go along: that while it is possible to live exclusively on one's fiction, you just might find greater satisfaction if you make it part, and not all, of your professional life.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Why Copyediting Matters

JUST THIS WEEKEND, I was reading a book by a New York Times bestselling novelist ... one that I am fairly certain the author self-published. I was in the first chapter, just getting into the story, when I hit this sentence: "Symbols clanged."
   At first the sentence intrigued me; I thought it was an unusual image. Then I re-thought that, wondering how a symbol, a visual element, could clang. I re-read the sentence in context, and then it finally hit me. What the author had meant to write was, "Cymbals clanged."
   It was an understandable mistake. The two words sound alike ... sort of. And between the two, only two letters are different. 
   But those two letters were enough to remove me from the story, dissolve suspension-of-disbelief, make me realizing I was reading something someone had written, and get me wondering why he hadn't used a better copyeditor (if he'd used one at all ... in the same novel, I later found "baby's" used as a plural).
   Copyeditors get a bad rap. We think of them as wan, cantankerous individuals who never see the sun, and live to pounce on novelists who write "who" instead of "whom" and end their sentences with prepositions. But they also serve the very useful purpose of helping the writer to keep readers in the storyworld, to help those readers forget they are reading, and encourage them to surrender the disbelief that stands between audience and the story. To that end, even if your next reader is an audience of one—an editor or an agent—it's worth your time and money to hire a copyeditor if you can afford one, or to ask several careful readers to beta-read your manuscript for you if you cannot.
   It's important, because you want to keep your readers lulled within the storyworld, undisturbed by typos, wordos or other errors.
   And symbols cannot clang.

Friday, June 27, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Rules? What Rules?

A GREAT MANY years ago, I had lunch with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. And when I say, "I had lunch," I don't mean I was in a hotel ballroom  and that he was at the head table while I was sitting far off, near the fire escape. No ... a local library society had asked him in to speak, and because I was a local author (I had written one—count it, one—book at the time: a travelogue of American mountaineering) they asked me to attend and then, at the lunch afterward, placed the two of us across a table from one another, assuming we were kindred spirits and would have oodles of things in common.
   They were wrong. I'd not yet begun to write fiction at the time, and Vonnegut and I had virtually nothing in common. But as my book was outdoorsy, he told me about his most recent outdoorsy vacation: a cruise to the Galapagos islands. I remember him pantomiming the courtship dance of the blue-footed boogie, using dinner rolls on forks (a la Charlie Chaplin) as facsimiles for the boobies' feet.
   This is a significant memory because I now understand that vacation was the genesis of Vonnegut's 1985 novel Galapagos, a book I consider significant because it breaks most of the so-called rules for writing a novel.
   The narrator of the novel is dead. He is Leon Trout, a Vietnam veteran who moved to Sweden after the war, got a job in a shipyard, and was decapitated by a falling piece of sheet metal. Throughout the book, Leon is a ghost, telling a first-person, present-tense story from a point 1,000,000 years in the future, when human beings have evolved to become sort of a cross between a dolphin and a seal, and their brains have all shrunk (because a smaller cranial cavity is more hydrodynamic and makes a person better able to catch fish).
   But while Trout's narrative is austensibly present-tense, he is talking about an event a million years in the past when (as a ghost haunting the ship he'd been working on when killed) he accompanied the members of a doomed cruise on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. 
   Being a ghost, Trout can inhabit other people's bodies and know what they are thinking. So he does that, oftentimes multiple times per scene, which for most narrators would be the storytelling error of head-hopping (using more than one point of view per scene), but works just fine in Galapagos because the primary point point of view is that of the ghost. Vonnegut's narrator also does a great deal of telling, rather than showing, which again is something the writing conferences rant against, but works just fine in Galapagos, as Trout does not think he is telling a story; rather, he is explaining why it is good that human beings evolved to have smaller brains, because it was big brains that created all the problems that almost led to our extinction.
   The list goes on. Trout doesn't want to shock his readers unnecessarily, so eventually every character will have an asterisk in front of his or her name: this is the narrator's way of warning the reader that this particular character is going to die in the next few pages.
   Funny thing is, it all works (you can see for yourself as, at least as of this writing, Galapagos is selling for a buck-ninety-nine on Kindle). And reading this book tells me that none of the fiction-writing rules are actually rules at all, but merely suggestions. 
   Then again, if you want to violate those suggestions with impunity, you'd better be a Kurt Vonnegut.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Phone a Friend

TWO DAYS AGO, I answered an e-mail and explained how a diver would replenish the soda-lime scrubbing material in a diving rebreather. At the same time, a friend of mine in Palm Bay (a city not far from me in Florida) was detailing how a particular type of evidence would be collected from a crime scene. Meanwhile, in Virginia, a third friend was explaining how to do a tracheotomy using found objects, and yet a fourth friend (this one in California) was answering someone who wanted to know the differences between English and American libel laws.
   Oh ... and all of the people I talk about above are bestselling novelists.
   We are all members of a private Yahoo group, composed of more than 200 novelists scattered around the world, all with at least three books published by conventional, advance- and royalty-paying publishers. 
   Because the group is extremely active, we email one another daily, as well as getting together for the occasional retreat. And because we know each other well, we get to know one another's backgrounds. Several members, in addition to being popular novelists, are very successful physicians or attorneys. One is a retired police detective. Another is an actor. Yet another is an architect, and one is one of the world's greatest authorities on quilting. 
   And one service we provide our peers in the group is a sharing of that knowledge base. 
   So, as I am a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer (two steps above an instructor), as well as an NSS-CDS Full Cave diver, and a closed-cell rebreather diver, I tend to be the go-to guy whenever someone is writing a scene that involves scuba diving. And virtually everyone in the group has some area of micro-knowledge. One just published a book on how to do portrait photography ... of dogs.   
   True, much information is easily Googled today, but that's a two-edged sword: much information on the Internet is also incorrect. So by asking people we trust, we get solid information that helps us maintain the crucial reasonable suspension of disbelief with our readers.
   Point is, what we do on a wide scale basis, just about any writers group or critique group can do on a smaller scale. Get to know the people in your writing circle, and get to know them beyond the superficial level of what they write. 
   You may just discover that the medieval armor expert you're looking for is actually the blank-verse poet who sits next to you on Tuesdays.

Friday, June 20, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Your Turn ...

TODAY, I'D LIKE TO shift from pontificant to supplicant.
   So far this year, we've covered a wide array of topics in this blog, ranging from why you should write two novels before you try to sell one, to why you should not put confetti into the envelope with your book proposal. We have had posts on writing realistic dialogue, and using cinematic cutting techniques in fiction, and I have even shared a never-berfore-seen photograph of novelist Terri Blackstock writing bestselling fiction in the front seat of her car.
   Here's the thing. As you've probably noticed (since I hype it just to the right of the blog entries on this page), I have a new book out on writing the novel, and that is getting me increased attention, the net result of which is that I'm getting invited to speak at more and more writer's conferences and to more and more critique groups and writers groups.
   For writers conferences that are five days long or longer, this is a slam-dunk: by doing one one-hour session in the morning and one in the afternoon or evening, I can present the entire contents of my book in five days.
   But some (many) conferences are fewer than five days, and at most critique groups, I'll only have a single 30-45-minute block allotted to me, after which I am expected to sit down and shut up. 
   So here is my question:
Imagine that you have found a magic lamp, and you have rubbed it, and out has popped, not a genie, but a well-published, bestselling novelist. What three questions would you like to ask that novelist?
   The "comments" section, below, eagerly awaits your response. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


EVERYBODY WANTS TO avoid the rookie mistakes; the things that scream out to a reader (or an editor, or an agent), "I am really, really, really new at this, and not quite sure what I'm doing yet."
   So let me share with you the one thing that, often on the first page, tells me I am reading the work of a writer who is still beginning to navigate the waters of fiction writing.
   They start twice.
   Often, when I review a manuscript, I'll read what appears to be the beginning of a story. And then, a few paragraphs down (or, in a novel or novella, in the next chapter), the story will present what appears to be a second starting point.
   There are a few reasons for this. One is over-delivery of information. We want readers to understand what the characters look like, what the setting looks like, and so on. So we pile that in, and then we get around to story.
   Or, with more experienced writers, we understand that we have to create a sense of normalcy or peace in order to disrupt it and create conflict, so we start with a pastoral opening. Then we introduce conflict and the story starts.
   Or (and this, I think is the most common), we write our way to the beginning. That is, we start at what we think is the beginning of the story and then, in the process of writing it, we arrive at the true beginning.
   So how do you tell where the true beginning is? For me, one question that I ask is, "How many elements of a story are here?" If I have setting, and characters, but no conflict, then I probably haven't arrived at a story yet. And yes, I know that conflict does not work if we are not yet invested in the character. So a way I typically solve this is by introducing an early conflict: something that is going to be overcome in the space of a few pages, but still gets the reader wondering how the character is going to get out of trouble.
   In In High Places, a novel that centers around the world of rock climbing, my story begins in the middle of a climb, with a character who does not know if he's equal to the task at hand. In the process of talking about that climb, and its aftermath, I'm able to get closer to what will be a central issue of that novel: a strained family dynamic. This frees me from beginning by showing the family at home, then sending them on the trip, and then getting to the rock climb, which is where the issues truly begin to emerge. By skipping all the throat-clearing, I allow the reader to start where the story starts, on the first rung of a ladder of increasing jeopardy.
   How do you avoid beginning twice? Some writers never do. But the difference between the professionals and the newer writers is that, when the pros realize that they are starting twice, they go back and get rid of that false, preliminary beginning. And that allows them to bring the reader into the storyworld at the proper moment: when the story begins. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: 5 Things to Leave Out of Your Book Proposal

A FEW YEARS AGO, I surveyed several fiction editors of my acquaintance, asking what newer novelists tended to leave out of their book proposals. 
   One of those editors responded, "Chocolate!" (with a smiley face). So, a few months later, when I sent her a proposal, I included a few bars handmade by a local chocolatier. 
   This got no reaction, so I asked her about it when I saw her next.
   "Oh, yeah," she said. "The chocolate. Why did you do that? That was weird."

   Of the myriad of reactions one is hoping to get from a proposal, "weird" is not one of them. And here, based on stuff that I have heard about from actual acquisitions editors, is a list of other things that you should leave out of your book proposal:

  • Confetti. You should have learned around the time you were five that negative attention is not better than no attention at all.
  • A manuscript on anything other than white paper. The cuteness of a romance printed on pastel paper wears off about one sentence in.
  • Manuscripts printed in anything other than black (or dark navy) ink. The one thing common to every editor I know is eyestrain; purple ink is not your friend.
  • An 8" x 10" color glossy photo of your smiling face. Your object here is to sell a book, not to convince the recipient to cast you in their toothpaste commercial. Occasionally, on proposals that were requested as a result of face-to-face meetings, I have put a thumbnail face shot on my proposal cover page, to help the editor remember who I am. But that's it.
  • Your idea for the book cover. You are the writer, not the art director.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: The Perils of Packaging

ALTHOUGH I DO NOT go out of my way to publicize the fact, many readers who follow my books are aware that I occasionally illustrate my own work.
   The backstory here is that this was not my original intention. For the first Beck Easton adventure, Deep Blue, I wanted a simple map of a cave system to precede the initial chapter, so I drew one up and sent it to my publishers, together with a note asking them to provide it as a reference piece for their illustrator. 
   The art directors who worked on that book were extraordinary (its cover won a major award that year), so I was more than a little surprised when  they replied that they liked what I had supplied, and if I had no objections, they would prefer to use it, not as mere reference, but as the actual illustration for the book.
My illustration of an Adams-
pattern dry fly, as it appeared
in my 2008 title, Wind River.
   Buoyed by that experience, I have created artwork for some of my other titles. For In High Places, I drew small illustrations to open each chapter. And for Wind River, I drew a pen-and-ink drawing of my favorite trout-fly pattern: an Adams dry fly. I've even had art directors inquire whether I might be available to do illustrations for other writers' works (I always politely decline; writing for me is therapeutic, whereas making drawings just feels like, well, work).
   So, knowing that I do my own illustrations on occasion, new writers often confide in me that they have what they are certain is going to be a sure-fire sales strategy.
   "I'm writing a _______," they will tell me (and in that blank goes "children's book," or "book of poetry," or "survival guide," or whatever). "And my ________ is going to do the illustrations." (This second blank is usually filled in by "neighbor," "cousin," "daughter," "baby-sitter" ... you name it.)
   Then they wait for me to congratulate them on an inspired and masterful approach.
   And they are astonished when I tell them that using such a tactic will drop the likelihood of selling their first book—which, as we all know, is already quite slim—by at least half.
   You see, in submitting a manuscript with pre-commissioned illustrations, you are moving from the realm of "writer" to "packager." And packaging—teaming up the work of two or more creative individuals—is traditionally a publisher's job. So at very least, you are stepping on toes by proposing it.
   Beyond that, unless you've got a diploma from the Parson's School of Design hanging on your wall, what strikes you as "great illustrations" may not get the same reaction from a professional art director.
   Even award-winning artwork designed for gallery display may not work very well in the limitations of a print environment. My books, for instance, are all printed with a single-plate process, which means I have only one shade of ink with which to work: jet black. And while some of my illustrations may appear to have shades of gray, that effect is an optical illusion; every line in my drawings is the same deep shade of black.
   Add to this that publishing houses are businesses, which operate according to economies of scale. That being the case, they may wish to commission an artist to illustrate several books, sometimes across various house imprints. This allows them to negotiate a better price per project and, and when you propose a book using your own illustrator (or yourself as the artist), you deny them that economic tool. 
   I realize that it sounds here as if I am saying, "I can do this, but you cannot." But bear in mind that I have never pitched a book predicated on use of my own illustrations. The first time my artwork was used, it was the publisher's idea. And in subsequent books, any illustrations I've provided have come with a note from me saying that they were being provided to be used, or not, as the art director saw fit, and that, if my artwork did not mesh with their vision for the book, then I would not be upset in the slightest.
   Because, after all, in this industry it is the publisher who packages the books, and not the writer.
   Understand that going in, and you'll have a much, much better chance of success.


Friday, June 6, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Dictionary Words

YEARS AGO IN PRAGUE, citizens deal with miscreant city council members not by voting them out, but by defenestration; they chucked the offending politicians out of the town-hall window.
   What I just did there is, in my opinion, the only way a writer should use an uncommon word. I used the word "defenestration" (with which I assume many readers will have no familiarity), and then I immediately defined it in context.
   Doing anything else is just rude.
   When she was small, my daughter referred to uncommon words as "dictionary words," because they caused her to set aside whatever work she was reading and seek a dictionary. 
   This, of course, is not desirable for any number of reasons. It vexes the reader. It interrupts the flow of the work. And it obliterates suspension of disbelief because, in setting aside the book to seek out another, the reader is reminded that he or she was reading in the first place.
   No less an authority than the late Elmore Leonard detested dictionary words. While there is no rule against them in his famous "ten rules for good writing, he does note in his rule on speaker attributions that, "I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with 'she asseverated,' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

NEWER NOVELISTS TEND to obsess over minutiae.
   When it came time to deliver the manuscript for my first novel, for instance, I made sure that it was printed out on archival-quality, 100-percent-cotton, 24-pound bond paper. And because I didn't trust the old rubber-band and shirt-cardboard method of keeping the pages neat in transit, I came up with a novel (pun intended) method of shipping the manuscript.
   Our family had recently acquired a FoodSaver: one of those vacuum-sealing systems for taking all the air out of food we were packaging for the freezer. And I got the idea of packaging my finished novel using the FoodSaver. Once I'd removed all the air from around and between the pages, the manuscript resembled an inch-and-a-half-thick hunk of marine plywood with a title page pasted to the top of it. It looked as if it was capable of protecting its bearer from small-arms fire ... well, the first round, at least. No additional protection was required; I tossed the vacuum-packed pages, a cover letter and an on-disk copy of the Word file into a manila envelope, and popped it into the mail. 
   Naturally, this surprised my editor when he received it. He told me he showed my plastic-wrapped, stiff-as-a-board  manuscript to the entire office, so I used the same technique to ship my next manuscript as well.
   Then I had the occasion to visit my editor in his office at the publishing house, and he showed me the file drawer in which he kept his current projects. Two hanging files held my work, included both of my original manuscripts. And they were still in their vacuum packaging.
   "You never opened them?" I asked.
   "Oh, no," my editor told me. "We hardly ever work on a physical manuscript anymore, and on those rare occasions when we need a paper copy, we just print one out from the Word file."
   After that, I never mailed another vacuum-packed manuscript. For that matter, not long after that, I ceased to mail anything at all.
   These days, my manuscript goes to my publishers as a Word file formatted in Times New Roman; if the publishers want a different font, I have full faith in their ability to reformat as needed. As for maps, drawings, or other images, those get sent out as high-resolution .jpg files. And the whole thing gets "shipped" either as an email attachment or (if the image files are too large), as a set of files sent out using a relay service.
   Advising me on how to go about my work, a sage editor once told me, "There are two keys to working successfully. The first is not to sweat the small stuff. And the second is to understand that most of what you encounter will be small stuff."
   I took his advice and decided to concentrate my time and talents on the large stuff.
   Like creating creating stories.
   And telling them as well as I can.  

Friday, May 30, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Letting it Rest

MOST SATURDAYS, WHEN I'm home in Florida, I go the same place for dinner: Shannon's Casual Cafe, in Orlando. The Saturday special is prime rib, and recently I called the owner in the early afternoon because my daughter needed to be at work at five; I asked him when the first prime rib would be ready.
   "We just took it out of the oven," he told me. "Now it has to rest. Give us half an hour to forty-five minutes."
   When chefs talk about resting cooked meats, most people assume that is so the food can finish cooking on stored heat. While that is true (to a very limited extent), there is actually another reason that a smart chef does this.
   Cooking a roast or even a steak forces the juices of the meat into its core. Immediately after cooking, the core is super-saturated with juice; cut it then, and most of the juice will run out, leaving a dry and tough cut of meat behind.
   But let it rest for several minutes, and the juices will migrate back to the outer regions of the meat. After resting, the roast or steak will be tender, moist and succulent.
   I mention all this as the prelude to saying that your fiction needs to rest as well. Not to redistribute the juices, but to allow what you thought you wrote to migrate out of your head. If I re-read something I wrote the same day that I wrote it, I will miss even basic errors (such as typing "and" when I meant "an," or "top" when I meant "to"—things I do all the time).
   But if I wait until the next morning to read my work, I'll catch a lot of stuff that needs revision. And then, if I set that work aside and revisit it a couple of months (or even a couple of weeks) later, I'll be objective enough that I can edit it as though it was someone else's work.
   Many novelists procrastinate. It seems to be the nature of the beast. And that being the case, there might not always be a few spare weeks or months in which to let the work rest. In that case, my preferred option is to change the line spacing and the font so the work looks different from what I keyed in. That, or I will prep it as a down-and-dirty ebook so I can read it on my Kindle. And of course, at some stage I'll always set up my MacBook so it can read the work back to me. Those tricks give me at least a shade more objectivity when I'm reviewing something I just wrote.
   But even better is to develop the discipline to write ahead of schedule, so you'll have time in which to let the work rest.
   Give that a try.
   And as for me, for some reason I find myself daydreaming about tomorrow ... and prime rib.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Where it Counts

SOMETHING PEOPLE ASK ME all the time is how long, in word count, a novel should be.
   I've said here before that my own novels vary in length; when I'm writing suspense, 97,500 words seems to be the sweet spot. And when I'm writing an espionage thriller, it may trend longer: as much as 115,000 words.
   That doesn't mean that your novel is going to come out to either of those lengths. War and Peace clocked in at just under 600,000 words, and Atlas Shrugged came in 50,000 words longer than that. At the other end of the scale, your typical shorter inspirational romance novel is going to be around 45,000 words, give or take.
   In 1952, when The New York Times reviewed The Old Man and the Sea, the Grey Lady pronounced Hemingway's work a "novel," even though later critics have called it a novella because of its brevity (26,601 words and, in most editions, less than 100 pages of actual story).
   I side with the Times on this one (possibly the one and only time you will ever hear me say this).  More than mere word count goes into determining what is a novel and what is a novella. And Hemingway's depth of character development, his use of subplots, and the perceived passage of time in this book all push the work into the more highly evolved territory of the novel, despite the extraordinarily modest word count.
   Not, mind you, that you should submit your first novel at 27,000 words and offer, "But Hemingway did it!" as your defense. Nor would I turn in a 600,000-word tome.
   Once you get established as a novelist, the publisher will spell out in the contract what's expected in terms of word count. In the meantime, for shorter romance novels, at least 45,000 words is a safe target. And for longer contemporary novels, while 70,000-120,000 words is often mentioned as the range, I would shoot for 90,000-100,000 words; this produces a work substantial enough for a shopper to view it as a good gift or a vacation read, without making the book so long that the publisher is going to incur extra production costs.
   All of this assumes, of course, that the length of your novel passes the first test. It has to be long enough to adequately tell the story.

Friday, May 23, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Working the Issues

YOU ALREADY KNOW (and we have said here previously) that the characters in your novel should not be perfect. Most novelists get that.
   Flaws, issues, challenges: readers relate to characters who have those. But for your novel to truly sing, you need to work those flaws, those issues and those challenges.
   For instance, in my debut novel, Yucatan Deep, my protagonist was a cave diver so haunted by the loss of his best friend that it really wasn't wise for him to continue diving. And my deuteragonist was the protagonist's fiancĂ©, a brilliant and talented trauma surgeon, deaf since childhood.
   Naturally, the surgeon does not want the diver to go back in the water. And this conflict comes to a boil while they are out for dinner at a nice restaurant in West Palm Beach. So they have a heated argument ... in public ... in sign language.
   Virtually every reviewer commented favorably on that scene. A couple of readers wrote and said that they wanted to marry the trauma surgeon. I felt bad, writing back to let them know that she existed only in my imagination.
   So, are your characters in your work-in-progress less than perfect? Good for you. 
   Now go put their issues to work for you.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Summer of the Novel

JUDGING BY THE EMAIL that I have received lately, a lot of my readers are planning on writing novels of their own this summer. As next Monday is Memorial Day—the unofficial start of the summer season, at least here in the USA—that seems to be the starting gun for finally getting a book down on paper.
   Writing a novel can be a tremendously rewarding experience, both personally and—if it is a great book—financially. And to help nudge your novel toward the "great" side of the gauge, I'd like to offer a little advice.
   I've written a book, The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft, that gives a solid and workable overview to writing and selling a novel. The first five chapters, which concentrate on how to conceive of and write a novel, can be read in a single evening, so if you get the book now, you can read those chapters a couple of times before you dive into your own writing. Other than sitting down next to me in an intensive workshop, I can't think of a better way to prepare you to write your own book.
   Now ... to help you say "yes" to reading the book, I've arranged a special deal with Amazon.
   The Kindle version of The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft regularly sells for $4.99, which is an outstanding value in and of itself.
   But tomorrow morning at 11:00 a.m. Eastern (8:00 a.m., Pacific Time), I am dropping the price to just 99 cents). 
   It will stay at that price for just 24 hours. Then the price will increase by $1 to $1.99, and stay there for another 24 hours. The Saturday price will be $2.99, Sunday's will be $3.99, and on Memorial Day, it reverts to its still-a-great-deal price of $4.99.
   In other words, it's a "countdown sale." You'll save money anytime tomorrow through Sunday, but you'll save the most (81%!) if you buy the Kindle version of the book tomorrow. 
   To make this special offer available, I had to promise Amazon that the book will be available throughout this sale in two forms only: print and the Kindle version. It is not yet available for Nook, Kobo or other readers. But if you don't have a Kindle, you can download the Kindle reader app for just about any computer, tablet, or smart phone here; the reader download is free.
   So, have a great summer writing your novel. And if you would like to jump-start that effort, The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft is an exceptionally good way to do it.
   Write something great! Tom

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Person of Interest

ASK A CHILD to describe her day to you, and the answer will almost almost always begin with "I" or "we"—"I went to school," or "We went to the ball game." First person is the language of verisimilitude; the language we use when we want the listener to know we are describing something that actually happened.
   Second person, in its simplest form, is the language of accusation ("You ate all the ice cream!"). 
   And, if you ask a child to tell you a story, the answer will almost always begin, "One upon a time there was ... " Then, whether what comes next is "a beautiful princess" or "a troll under a bridge," the narrative will proceed in third person, because third-person is the language we use when we are making things up.
   Now, when that child grows up and begins to write fiction, he or she will only rarely use second person (because it makes the narrator sound like a hypnotist). 
   Nor will most beginning novelists write in first-person. 
   Overwhelmingly, newer novelists choose to write third-person narratives, and I can see why; writing in the third person allows you to shift points of view as you shift scenes, and to drop in backstory, and to exercise a greater degree of omniscience.
   But here's the thing: if our purpose as novelists is to induce in the reader a reasonable suspension of disbelief, then why do we gravitate in such numbers to narratives that, even as children, we recognized as the language of fabrication?
   That's my question this Tuesday, and I'd welcome your thoughts in the comments, below.

Friday, May 16, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Learning to Land It

YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS first learning to fly, I realized two things quickly. 
   The first was that, as long as the wind stayed moderate and relatively constant, taking off is easy.  Airplanes are designed to fly. Being in the air is their natural condition. Put enough air past their wings, and flying is what they will do.
   And the second thing I learned is that landing can be difficult. There is even a condition known as "ground effect," in which the aircraft appears to resist the pilot's efforts to return it to the earth. Airplanes, after all, are designed to fly, and ... being in the air is their natural condition. 
   So, in a nutshell, the process of learning to fly is largely about coming to grips with the principles of landing. Master that, and the rest tends to sort itself out naturally. 
   Novels can be much the same way. Just about anyone can write the beginning of a novel, or at least compose the treatment that will guide the creation of that beginning. But resolving a plot and multiple subplots in a fashion that seems workable and believable? That's a much thornier issue.
   Even more challenging is to write a great ending—an ending that will resonate with readers and haunt them for days, weeks or months afterward.
   Yet, as a novelist, you want—want and should not settle for anything less than—that great ending. You want it because it's the last part of the book that the reader experiences, and so it should be the best remembered. And you want it because books with great endings are books that readers talk about, and books that readers talk about are books that sell well.
   I'm very fortunate in that my 2007 novel, In High Places, had an ending that got a lot of readers and reviewers talking. To their credit, most did so without giving the ending away (something that I will not do here, either), but it excited such passions in them that they had to share their excitement about the book. And the way I created that sort of ending was very simple, really.
   I wrote the ending first.
  Now, I know that to some writers, this is anathema. Knowing how your story ends, and knowing that before you begin writing it, takes away some of the adventure, some of the process of discovery. But that raises the question of who the story is being written for. And if the story is being written for the reader—and I believe that it should be—then I believe what John Irving once said in an interview:
"When I start telling a story, I already know the story. There must be authority and authenticity in a storyteller's voice; readers must trust that the storyteller is an expert, at least on this particular story. How can you be an expert if you don't know what happens?"
   Sometimes—and this happened with In High Places—I think of an ending first and the rest of the book just falls into place before it. Sometimes, I think of an ending and use it as my destination, so the rest of the book is a journey through which I find my way there. But often, and usually, I simply have to think about a story for days, months, weeks or even years before I come up with an ending that will resonate for it. And when I have that, then I know I can begin to write it.
   Because once you know how to land, that's when you can trust that you know how to fly.