Thursday, December 5, 2013

Contest: How many errors can you find?

How many errors can you find in this letter to an author met at a book signing on a rainy day?

Everyone who gets it right will receive a free ebook copy of my novel, MIDNIGHT SUN

Deer Author,

I enjoyed meeting ewe at you’re book singing, I came with my made who is a compete fan of yores. She sed I must complement you on your choice of locals.

You have a wanderful friendly personality as evidenced bye all those pubic smiles, shakes, and even hugs you shared with strangers. You seam to have a talent for touching people in pubic that makes it the climax of a lifetime. For instance as you were packing up to go two pretty young sisters came in only too learn, much two they’re constipation, that they’d missed the singing. Butt you gave them a powerfully energenic three-way pubic hug that left them breathless with your firm grasp of their desire’s.

As it reigned outside, they stood in under wear the tall decorative plants kept you protractively close and you put your arms all over them saving them from the ailments. All of you like that, warm and cozy, inside their under wear you could affectively effect they’re effection’s in a physically touching way.

I stood their griping my newly singed addition of you’re latest navel, watching in aw you’re menny gentle ax of pubic kindness. I nearly spilled coffee on my khaki docker’s as the scene had me peaked, exited at witnessing the tender stroking of their needy soles.

I was truly empressed. I think it'd be grate to put two gather your talent for pubic appearances, your general willingness to touch other people, and your wonderfully deffective energy at book singings by staging what I wood caul “A Touching Pubic Singing” with other fallow authors, many of whom I am certain would come with their spouses and significant udders.

Wee, that is my made and me, are egg cited to have mitt yew, and are looking four word to meating you again in neer few sure.


Literally Reeder
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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Regarding Editing First Drafts:

I often fight this battle in a bottle with a paddle and the paddle hits my noodle and my poodle in a panic piddles puddles on the ruggles and the words become all muddled, and the misses then insistses that I'm just a fuddie-duddle. It's the all to common, call yer mom'n, Sunday sermon bit'o learnin', whirly birdie, should'a heardie answer to the question that'yer askin'. I'm a put'm inner, take'm outer, turn-about & shout it louder kinda guy.

And there you have it, indubitably.
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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Kickstarting my New Series - ICE HAMMER

Ever wish you could help encourage your favorite authors to get their next book out faster? Well, here's a chance ... at least if I fall into that category that is.

Putting the Power in Your Hands

I have posted a new project on a website called . At Kickstarter writers, artists, inventors, etc are able to post projects to find folks willing to pledge financial support to help get the projects from dream phase into real life. Those who pledge get products in exchange for their dollars, ranging from books to audiobooks, to the writer pulling silly stunts like jumping into an icy lake in Alaska and putting it TV.

The New Series

ICE HAMMER. A new series.

Ice Hammer is a three book fiction series seen through the eyes of a family ripped apart by invasion and the ensuing war that consumes the North American continent, including their home state of Alaska. It is not about the bigger political game that stands behind all war, but it is about the lives, the loves and the bitter struggles of those trying to survive to see another day.
Waiting for my next novels to come out?

What Can You Do?
The pledges I collect from this project will go directly towards subject matter research, topic specific training, recording studio upgrades, book formatting, cover art, and distribution/marketing.
Want to help me get my new series onto paper? Here's how:

1. Click this link to go to my Kickstarter Project Page
2. Watch the video and read the text to make this is a project you want to support
3. Select a dollar amount / award level you think fits you
4. Make the pledge!

It's that easy.

You don't actually pay anything unless and until I reach my minimum goal. Once that is reached the pledges are collected and the project goes into over drive. If it is not reached, we all shake hands and say "Good-game, good-game." and walk off the field to prepare for another go at it in the future.

I am confident that you folks can make this a reality. Head on over to my Kickstarter Project Page and make your pledge. Then tell your relative, friends, neighbors, co-workers, strangers in the grocery store, and so on.

Thanks in advance.
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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fists of Fury: Writing Action Scenes That Take Your Breath Away

I just got back from the Alaska Young Writer's Conference where I presented a workshop on the title of this blog. Wow, were those kids awesome. So much talent in their teenage minds I was inspired. There were a couple who I am certain will be household names in the not too distant future. What follows is the text of the handouts with notes and tools I hope you find useful.

Action scenes serve a powerful function in your fiction. A surprise phone call, an unexpected visit, or an ill-timed delay will force your character to respond quickly (rather than reflect), and allows you to advance the plot without miring it in long descriptive passages and explanations.

While physical contact, combat, fights etc are what comes to mind when we think of action scenes that is not the only kind of action scene that can become heart thumping. Action scenes can be any from those types, to a verbal argument between characters, a person struggling to climb a mountain, a car chase, someone hiding from the bad guys. 

The key to writing action scenes is to make sure that something happens that impels your protagonist to act, reveals their capacity to deal with problems, and affects future events in the story. “The only requirement of an action scene is that it rely in part upon physical movement through the space you’ve created, and evoke a sense of time passing,” says Jordan E. Rosenfeld, author of Make a Scene. To make your reader feel like he is part of the action, try these techniques from the book:

•Ensure that the events unfold in “real time,” allowing the reader to feel he is participating in the events of the scene.
• Make the pace quick, and include some kind of physical movement.

•Force the protagonist to make quick decisions or react—to run on instinct rather than intellect.

•Create unexpected consequences for the protagonist to heighten the drama.

The Rules For a Good Fight Scene
1. Have competent opponents. It won't be a very enjoyable read if your hero is a far better fighter than his opponents. A respected opponent makes for a good fight. Mindless minions getting mowed down gets boring, fast. Have the opponent pull surprises. This holds true for verbal altercations as well. 
  • If the enemy does come in seemingly endless waves, show the effect on the protagonists. The constant fighting is wearing them down, they're low on ammo, they're injured, etc.

2. Make it real. Real fighters don't stop to make speeches. In real life, while the adrenaline is pumping, people won't have the energy to compose devious and witty lines. Instead there will be grunts, growls and expletives. Swearing is common, instinctive and often violent. When someone gets kicked in the jaw, or hit with a headbutt, they're not likely to just shrug it off as though nothing has happened. When your hero gets hit, make sure your readers can "feel" the hit.

3. Word Choice. Consider carefully the effect that your words have on the reader when it comes to perceptions.
  • Long detailed sentences slow the pace and can make a death-match sound like a pillow fight. 
  • Short sentences with little extraneous detail create a faster, more frantic tempo. With short choppy lines you can make a reader breath to the rhythm of the battle, make them actually physically affected by what they're reading.
  • Let the reader use their imagination to visualize the scene. Less description and more action.

4. Spice up your verbs.
  • Verbs are the bread and butter of every action scene. After all, action scenes need action words. or some similar site is a wonderful tool for this.
  • If you just used the word block, try using “parry” next. Make use of energetic like “streaked”, “slammed”, or “punched.”

5. Show the effect of the fight once it is over
  • After the fight, is your hero injured? Is he bleeding? Did he break an arm? What about the other combatants? 
  • If your fighter walks away afterwards as though nothing has happened, then he is either a robot, or you are missing some detail.

Here is a sample scene from my novel MIDNIGHT SUN.

   Leka charged from behind, knife in hand. His ears ringing wildly, Warner barely heard the thump of boots on floor. He attempted to roll away from Leka's powerful hammer hands a moment too late. Warner's arm flew up to deflect the knife thrust. The blade came fast, slicing muscle and sinew between the radius and ulna. Warner let out a bellowing roar and jammed the butt of his pistol into the muscular Kosovar's skull. Leka roared back and hammered his fist into Warner's forehead, smacking the agent into the wall and jarring his pistol loose. It spun across the floor with a clatter.

   Leka jabbed a fist toward Warner's gut, and the agent raised his leg to deflect the blow. Leka’s knuckles cracked against Warner's knee. Both men shouted in pain-filled fury. Grunting back the agony in his arm, the knife had wedged solidly between the bones of his forearm, Warner grabbed Leka's shirt and used the man's own body weight to leverage him across and away. Leka countered by grabbing Warner's clothes. The two men toppled to the ground in a seething mass of grappling and growling like a cage-fight death match. Their faces pressed against each other, grinding jawbones into each other like weapons, using every part of their anatomy as a tool of inflicting pain. Fingernails gouged into skin. Knees pressed to thigh muscles and groin. Elbows dug into ribs. Warner bit Leka's ear, drawing blood and eliciting a howl. Leka grabbed the knife handle protruding from the other's arm. Warner let out a scream and drove a thumb into Leka's eye, then repeatedly jammed a knee into his groin. Leka reacted to the testicle blow, loosening his grip enough for Warner to roll into the upper position and drive an elbow into Leka's solar plexus.

So, with these tools now in hand it's your turn to give it a try. In the comments below post a fight scene, just a paragraph or two and let's see if you can make my heart thump faster.


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Friday, October 11, 2013

The #1 Rule for Writers

Now that we know some of the basics of getting the layout of the story it’s time to actually start writing the story itself. Way back in 2006 I wrote my first novel, Karl’s Last Flight. I was excited. I knew I had achieved the dream and was going to make millions when it sold, which would of course be immediately. I started submitting it to agents and publishers and got nothing but dozens of rejections. I couldn’t figure out why. Then one agent, who had requested the manuscript to read got back to me with the most confusing statement I’d ever heard.

“Learn show, don’t tell.”

As writers we tend to like to describe things with words. Flowery descriptions of beautiful landscapes, or character’s bodies, or the scene in a room seem to sound natural to us. When reading classical literature, or even modern ‘literary works’ (more on the difference between literary & commercial fiction in another post), we often find ourselves stepping into such descriptive texts.

The problem with overly describing a scene is that we are taking the reader out of the story and sitting them in a lecture hall. We are telling them what they are seeing, instead of letting them see it by engaging the visual part of their imagination.

Here’s an example of Telling:

Stressed from a long day at the office Bill opened the door and cringed at the sound of the hinges creaking as it swung inward. He thought about the need to fix that awful noise as he stepped into the house. The hallway was long and straight, stretching all the way to the other end of the house where he could see through the back screen door into the yard where his kids bounced on the backyard trampoline. Next to the door stood a tall wooden coat rack with a hat and an umbrella on the other hooks. He took off his coat and hung it on the nearest hook. Next to the coat rack was a dark wood table with a scratched surface on which he put his keys next to a china vase filled with porcelain replicas of roses. He stepped down the hallway, shoes clicking on the marble tiled surface as he made his way toward the kitchen. The smell of his wife’s cooking filled the air around him causing his stomach to gurgle in hunger.

And here’s the same story being Shown:

Bill cringed at the creaky hinges of his front door. The wrinkles in his brow deepened.

Gotta get that fixed.

He dropped his jacket on the empty hook of the old-fashioned coat rack between the hat and the umbrella that kept it company. A flick of the wrist and his keys skidded across the nearby wooden table adding a couple new scars to the surface as they chinked to a stop against a china vase, the vibration eliciting a tinkly song from the porcelain roses packed into it. A draft snaked down the long hall from the screen door at the opposite end, snatching the scent of his wife’s cooking from the kitchen and sending it swirling around his head. Reflected shadows rose and on the polished marble floor as the lowering sun back lit his kids’ wild bouncing. Their gleeful laughter vibrated the length of the house, erasing the stress that followed him home from the office. That trampoline was the best thing he’d ever bought.

See the difference? The key to writing a story people can get immersed in is letting their imagination build the pictures by showing action rather than describing the scene. This is something that takes a lot of time and practice to learn, but as you get it down it becomes the natural way to write.

There are many great resources out there that can help you get a really solid grip on how to do it, such as those written by my friends James Scott Bell and Jodie Renner that can help immensely. The biggest and best tool though is to read good authors who make it zing. Some of my favorite examples of well written fiction that hits the mark are the works of Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, Louis L’Amour, and Nelson Demille. Oh, and how could I forget the inestimable Terry Pratchett? Pratchett is able to paint wonderful pictures with actions of his characters that will have you alternately in awe and rolling on the floor laughing.

What about you? What authors have you found that hit the style that paints the pictures best in your mind?
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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The End of All Things: Getting from the middle to the end, and closing your story.

Over the past few weeks I’ve brought up the two of the three basic components of a story: The Beginning, and The Middle. Today we’re going to wrap up the storytelling trifecta discussing the words all writers are aiming for… The End.

There are two ways to look at endings. First would be the ending of a standalone story. Second is the dual ending that indicates a series. We’ll step into some detail about both of these types of writing.

Whether it’s a novel, a short story, or even a flash fiction piece like those from last week’s competition. Standalone stories are those that are told from start to finish in a single book. They are stories that need to be wrapped up satisfactorily such that the reader feels like the story is indeed over. These stories may be part of a series, but can still be classed as standalones in that each book does not require a previous story be read to get to know the characters. Examples of basic standalone novels would be Stephen King’s or Sandra Brown’s books. Standalone series writers include folks like Lee Child, whose Reacher series or Ian Fleming’s Bond books. Those can be picked up at any point in the series and read as individual stories on their own merit, or read in any order without ruining the story line.

Having a good ending in paramount in any novel. Notice: Good Ending does not necessarily equal Happy Ending. This is an important distinction to remember depending upon the format, the audience, and the genre of the story.

Format is important because depending on the length of the story (novel, novella, short, flash, etc) you may or may not have room to build a happy ending. But an ending that leaves most of the closure to the imagination, preferably in an easy to imagine way, can be just as satisfying.  Not all genres demand a happy ending either. Quite often thrillers, horror and crime stories end with a good, but decidedly unhappy ending where the good guys are badly injured or perhaps even die, the town is destroyed, etc. The old Twilight Zone episodes were terrific for this type of satisfying but not very happy ending where the viewer was left with the knowledge that rather than things going nicely for the hero of the story he/she ends up going mad instead and being carted away in a straightjacket. The classic William Shatner Episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is a perfect example of this.

One the other hand some books in those same genres are perfectly good with happy endings. It all depends on the preferences and style of the author, and what you want your audience to feel when then put the book down at the end. The point here is that you don’t have to end with everyone smiling and hugging and rainbows in the sky for it to be a satisfying ending. One of my favourite books of all time, and probably the closest thing to a romance I’ll ever admit to reading, is The Thorn Birds. No spoilers here, but that book had one of the least happy, yet most satisfying endings I’ve ever enjoyed.

Ongoing Series

Now, for series books the rules above apply, but there is the additional aspect that the story does not end at the end of the first book. The reader is left with that ever popular dilemma know as … Duh, Duh, Duuuhnnn … The Cliffhanger!

Ongoing series books are those that carry a single story, and usually multiple side stories, from one book to the next building on each preceding story usually with the characters growing or otherwise changing throughout the series. Great examples of this type of building series include writers like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, or Ken Follet’s Centuries Series where we watch the characters grow from young to old over the course of three, four, or more books. One of my favorite historical fiction writers, Bernard Cornwell, took twenty one books to lead Richard Sharpe from being an illiterate private in Wellington’s Army in India to retiring as a highly literate Colonel after the Napoleanic Wars. In each book Sharpe grew older, wiser and stronger. But each individual book in the series also had to have some sort of ending that closed that story satisfactorily.

The key with keeping an ongoing series running yet having that good ending to each book is to have multiple simultaneous endings for each title.  This also means having multiple plot lines for each book. One plot line would be the main theme that carries on throughout the entire series, in Sharpe’s case watching him grown from slum kid to famous soldier and wondering how he will survive each thing as he moves through, this will be the cliffhanger that makes the reader want to learn more about the character of your story.

In addition to that main theme there has to be a more urgent plot line that runs through only the one book and has all of the ups and down and twists of a standalone book. This theme, it could also be multiple themes, should have closure by the end of the book.  For example the first book of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has three minor theme endings:

1. Robb becomes King of the North

2. John ‘takes the black’ and joins The Wall

3.  Daenerys becomes The Mother of Dragons

Those minor endings each close out the book with a sense of satisfaction, while still allowing the cliffhanger that will introduce the next books…still in the making.

So, there you have it. Endings are uber-important.

Whether your books are individual episodes with no expectation of ever meeting those characters again, or if they are ongoing series that will pull readers back time and again, you have to end each book with a bang that signals the party is over.

Next week …. How to make your stories seem alive AKA… “Show Don’t Tell”.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Winner of the Flash Fiction Contest is......

And the first place winner is: .... drum roll please .... .... .... .... ...

Susan Montgomery!!
Her story was very vivid from the get go, and before we got to the end I could easily picture the whole scene, even felt like I had been rained on.

Both of the others were very good as well and therefore tie for second place. Great job all of you. 

Send an email to me at basil (at) basilsands (dot) com and I will send you the information to download your choice of free audiobook or ebook.
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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

CONTEST - FLASH FICTION - Write a story in 100 words or less - Prizes

We've been discussing putting together the elements of a story, beginning, middle and end. This week I'd like to have a short practice session involving those three parts and winning prizes, or what some would call a CONTEST!!

Contest details are below, but make sure to read the rest of the post first.

Flash Fiction is a type of writing that puts an entire story together in a very short format. Flash Fiction can be classed as ranging from less than 1000 words total to as few as, well...very few indeed.

Hemingway was once challenged to write a complete story in the fewest words possible. His response was:

"For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn"

In six words he was able to convey a complete picture. To the imaginative reader we can see the loss and tragedy of the parent who is writing this advertisement. We can picture the entire scene and fill in the blanks with the rest of the story from our imaginations.

One great way to start is to get a mental image of something either physical or a memory. Perhaps using a prompt like the image outside your window or a picture you see.

Here is an example of Flash Fiction I wrote a while back based on a picture I liked:

Sir William Longs For Home

I left my house of stone and cold to fight for glory in a land of sand and fire.
My skin is blistered and raw, Saracen scars now mar my face and arms and I’ll be damned if I ever think of the sun as an honest friend.
This cursed sun that bakes us in the day, and vanishes at night to let us freeze near to death.
God, I cannot wait to stand on cool grey stone, and be warmed at will by the fire in my hearth, and my wife’s soft skin.


The Gate
The old man looked him and pointed a bony finger to the massive round gate atop the hill.
"None who've climbed all the way have ever returned"
The young man stared in awe and said, "It must be like heaven on the other side, that they’d never return."
The old man nodded.
"That," he said, "or a slippery steep drop."


The trick of course is to make sure the story works without the reader seeing the picture.

So, without further adieu... THE CONTEST.

For the sake of this challenge we're going to make the word count goal very short, closer to Hemingway's story than the other end of the spectrum.

Contest rules:

Topic/Theme: Any
Rating: PG-13 or lower (no erotica or f-bombs or excessive judgement rules)
Length: 100 words or fewer (yes that's one hundred words or less). 
Challenge Ends: September 20th, 2013
Who: English Speaking World

And there are PRIZES as well.

Best Flash Fiction as voted on by me will receive a $10 Amazon gift card and your choice of either one (1) signed paperback, or two (2) ebooks, or two (2) audiobooks from any of my works. Second place receives choice of one (1) ebook or one (1) audiobook from any of my works.  If military thrillers aren't your preference, you are free to give them as gifts to someone else.

1st and 2nd place entries get posted on my Facebook and Website with credits to the winners. Who knows what agents, publishers, or other interested parties may see it there???

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Monday, September 2, 2013

In the Midst of the Middle: The part that makes the story a story

Okay, so after last week’s post on starting with a bang on that first line you carried on and your first few pages are done right? If not, you need to get going. While the story juice is flowing keep that momentum. That is one of the keys to writing a novel, momentum. Once the story starts the reader needs to be kept interested throughout the rest of the book. Many writers start off with a strong picture of the beginning and the ending of their book, but have no clue about what to do with the other two or three hundred pages between that first and last chapter.

It doesn’t matter if you have a great beginning and a spectacular ending, if you don’t have a middle that people want to travel all the way through, you don’t have a story. So just how do you go about building the middle of the story without muddling through a wasteland of description and unnecessary fluff?
Some writer’s guides extol the virtues of a three-act play, some prefer a five-act set up. Either are basically the same thing done in different manners. Chiefly you need the following elements in your story:

1.       The setup or Act 1
This is the part we talked about last week, those first lines and that first chapter that gets your audience interested in the characters and wanting to find out what is going to happening to them next. This part of the story includes those first lines and the first chapter or two in which you take the reader out of their everyday world and make them see some cool new world in which they can live in their imaginations for twelve to twenty hours or more of reading. Once you’ve hooked them on this part of the story and they delve deeper you need to make sure it stays interesting.

2.       The Middle, aka Act 2 thru however many acts you use before the end

Keep the action going like a rollercoaster. A key to keeping your readers interested as you develop your characters is to build tension throughout the story. Whether you are building a taut psychological thriller, an action packed anti-terrorist thriller, a dark crime noir novel, a sci-fi / fantasy epic or a cozy mystery you need to keep some level of tension moving through each and every chapter. And all of that tension must lead toward the ending you as the writer can already see.

3.       The Ending, Final Acts

This is your wrap up. This is where you pull it all together, make the big fight scene / discovery moment / nabbing the bad guys. This is where it all comes together. And this is another blog post, because we’ve got to get that middle built first.

On the Middle

There’s a lot of debate on how to get from 1 to 3. Do you build an outline that details out the steps you need to take to get from the beginning through the middle to the end? Do you just write by the seat of your pants and hope it all comes together in the end? To be honest there are a lot of big name authors on both sides of the debate. The choice you make as to how you will get from Point A to Point C all depends on your personal style.

My first four novels were all written via the “seat of my pants” method. In this style of writing you start off with a premise and just go forward with little or no pre-planning and let the story unfold on the page as it happens in your head. This can be a very exciting way to write, because even as the author you don’t know what’s happening next. Characters suddenly pop into the story out of nowhere, and events unfold before your very eyes surprising you, even though they’re coming out of your own head. The plus side of ‘seat of your pants’ writing is that the story is fresh and exciting as you put it on the paper. Basically, the story tells itself. Most new writers start with this method and quickly discover the down side to being a ‘pantser’. If you are not a naturally image centric person with a very sharp sense of improvisational imagination that can change directions on a dime without losing the focus on the end goal you will likely get lost in the story and find yourself unable to wrap up the ending in any form that makes sense.

Outlining on the other hand is a much more scientific path to take, and while it may seem like a lot of work…okay…it is a lot of work…it can make the story very strong and coherent. It is easy to feel overwhelmed at the thought of outlining the entire novel in advance. But as I have gained experience in writing I can honestly say it is a much better way if you can do it. Sadly not all of us can do a straight outline before writing the parts of the story that are popping out to us. If like me you are easily distracted by shiny things and your muses are a constant source of brain chatter (click here learn what I mean about my muses), trying to get the whole book outlined before writing the cool parts is daunting indeed. Therefore I mix it up a bit.

My latest novella, Blade of Hearts, and my current work in progress (aka WIP), working title “ICE HAMMER”, I used a combined outline / seat of the pants styles. In other words, after agreeing on the beginning and end points of the story I did an outline of the first fifty percent of the story before writing anything else. Then as it got going I put any changes I saw coming into the outline before I reached that point. Kind of like that 80s episode of the Twilight Zone ‘Matter of Minutes’ where a couple discovers that all the events of time are set up by a bunch of blue men just an hour or so ahead of them actually occurring.

In doing a running outline ahead of time you can keep track of where your characters need to be heading from one scene to the next and keep them moving to the fixed end point. You don’t have to outline every detail of every scene. The outline can be as simple as a general path toward the end. On the other hand, it can be as complex as you like if you are a more detail oriented planner. The key is not to get muddled in the middle of the story, to keep flowing, and keep the tension ratcheting up gradually so as to hold the reader in the story until the big ending.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fresh beginnings: Starting your story

So, you've got a story you want to tell. You can see the characters in your head and sense the story starting to roll around your imagination. You get out pen and paper, or fire up the computer and open your word processor, stare and that blank white space in front of you and...nothing.

A few ideas of opening lines pop out, you write them down, read them over, then erase them. You just can't seem to get this thing moving. Well, here are a few hints, tips and tricks I've learned after pounding away at four novels, a novella, and over a dozen short stories.

1. Hook your reader with the first lines.

That's right, get them started right away into the action of your story. Pull them in from the very start and don't let them go. Here are a few pretty good first lines:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

The moment one learns English, complications set in. —Felipe Alfau, Chromos (1990)

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

Do you see what those first lines do? They grab your attention and make you think, "What?" And once you've thought that, you have to read on to find out just what the author is talking about.

2. Starting with that first line be active from the very beginning.

Don't start your book with descriptions or explanations to set the scene. Instead, write as if the reader has just stepped into the scene and carry on as if they can see it for themselves. This may, to a new writer, sound like hogwash.

"But don't I have to explain what is going on first so the reader knows where they're at?"

No, you don't because you are going to show them where they're at by the way the scene plays out. 
Basically the idea here is that they just turned a corner and BAM! they walked into your scene. Their imaginations can fill in a surprisingly large amount of information.

In my own novels I have started with a spaceship crashing to the earth (Karl's Last Flight), a terrorist slicing a betrayer's throat (65 Below), a POW being dragged from a prison cell (Faithful Warrior), and a CIA hit man witnessing his wife killed before his eyes (Midnight Sun). These are grabbers that make the reader go "Whoa what?" And then they want to know what happens next.

3. Introduce your main characters or set up that introduction early on.

You don't have to introduce the main good guy necessarily. You could introduce the main bad guy, but the first chapter should introduce at least one or two characters that are going to be with the reader for the entire story.

4. Try to avoid cliche starts

"It was a dark and stormy night" worked a couple centuries ago...not so much today. Most writers recommend avoiding starting your book with weather in general. But my opinion is that if the weather is part of the action, then why not. In some books, like my best selling novel 65 Below, weather is practically a character in itself. But do be careful, you don't want someone picking up a book and going "Oh, another one of those stories."

5. Hook the reader with the first lines.

What? That sounds repetitive? Well, that's because it is. The concept of hooking the reader with the first lines is of crucial importance to any story. So much so, that it bears repeating in a list like this.

So, there you go. A handful of tools and tips that might help you get started.

And now, an exercise.

For all you aspiring writers out there in the comments section below give us a few starting lines and I will critique them. How are you going to start your story?
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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Warning Against Writing 2-Dimensional Cardboard Cutout Characters:

The problem with cardboard cutout characters is moisture. When the rest of the story gets soaked in the rain storms of fate and destiny, or drenched by the ship tossing waves of high adventure or swept away by the sweaty, sloppy french kisses of romance, cardboard cutout characters suck up all that moisture and, unlike their more 3-dimensional co-characters, with no life-like outlets against which to pour their rage, violence or tongue wagging horniness they end up absorbing all the rain, salt waves, saliva and any other violence based or sexually induced 'wetness'. The cardboard cutouts just suck up the moisture, absorbing it with the sucky power of those top secret NSA super-sucky paper towels(aka 'Super-Secret-Sopping-Slurper-Sucker-Upper' brand towels) Snowden tried to warn us about.

Cardboard being as cardboard is, our cardboard cutout 2-D stud and/or femme fatale absorbs the wetness, but can't be wrung out and ends up a pile gloopy, glumpy, slushy-mush that looks like oatmeal blended with mouse turds and topped with week old guacamole with a side of mold.

Therefore, having said and done and imagined all of the above we are left with only two closing conclusions:

1. Don't write cardboard cutout characters


2. Don't French Kiss cardboard don't know where that wetness actually came from...

So there... mission accomplished ... I think we've saved a life today.
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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Currents of Meaning: Why do you write what you write?

Theme: A unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc, as in a work of art.

As a writer I believe that my story comes from some place deeper than merely a random explosion of words that falls together and happens to turn out to be some degree of entertaining. Those kinds of tales, and I know they do exist because I’ve read some of them, seem to me to be little more different than passing someone on the street, feeling the rumble of your lunch time double bean burrito build into a pressure system and braaap!!

“Wow,” the passer-by exclaims. “It smells like cherries! Amazing! You’re so talented!”

Yeah…not. Stories, real stories, real tales worth sitting by the fire, in the park, or even on the can to read do not just pop out of nowhere and burst on the scene. They have a source, and believe it or not, even the most benign story has a meaning, purpose, and logic to it.

The stories I tell and the words I pick to tell them all come from a repository of thoughts and memories, both conscious and unconscious, stored by categories of words and groups of phrases somewhere in the soul. The warehouseman in charge of that facility is awakened and sent on a mission to locate specifically sought after information based on a database like system of shelves, drawers and boxes labeled with tags that are sometimes meaningful, sometimes confusing. While the filing system isn't always obvious in its attempts to make sense of individually remembered events and words, when he stands back and views the row upon row of shelves he can see that everything in that storage system is generally grouped by large, interlocking pools that clearly list the distinct, over-arching form and shape of the events in which that scenario played out, sharing some information and keeping some sequestered, waiting only for that special event or person to call out the deeper, more intimate details of that data.

Pulling back further those data pools are grouped into trickling streams that bubble over rocks and wind through forests as they make their way toward a much larger flow, the central channel inside the world of this mind. This gathers all the long travelled streams into one massive body, a living breathing river running its course along a path pre-determined by the weakness or strength of the various soils, bedrock, and life altering obstacles yet to be encountered. When taken as a whole, observed from high above at the end of its course, it becomes obvious that throughout the years and miles of its long run, that river...that life...had one overarching theme fed into and determined by each of those smaller streams, moments in life that in the end made the wide river that becomes me when the number of my days are fulfilled.

Now…where were we…oh yes, writing. Gotta get back into the stream there… …

Alley Oop!

Ah, now we’re swimming again…

As anyone who has read my books knows, I write decidedly not poetic, non-'literary', commercial military action thrillers. While the above paragraph may seem to indicate I have a penchant for painting beautiful words, my actual books will demonstrate that my preferred form of storytelling is to write about car chases, guns, bombs, and killing bad guys. But, and here is what I really want the reader of this blog to learn from this post, I write what I write for a reason. In all I do, everything I say and everything I write there is a purpose. There is an overarching theme.  I believe this is true for all artisans whether you write, sing, build houses, fix computers, make sandwiches or dig ditches.

Now when I say there is a theme to everything, this is not the same as saying that every word or phrase or action is calculated to touch on that theme specifically. I do not plan my days, or even my writing, by rising early and putting together a list of the people I will meet and what i will say to each one in each circumstance. Many years ago I was actually accused of doing just that, albeit not in a serious way. Back when I was a carpenter for a living I was known for being the guy with quick funny things to say at any moment. In the midst of a conversation I might bust into an impression of the boss, but using a Russian mafioso accent or I'd do an improvised song and dance to the beat of the nail guns and chop saws as we worked. These impromptu shows would make the guys howl with laughter, forcing occasional squirts of tomato soup through Clayton’s nose which made the laughter even worse. Eugene once laughed so hard a pea from his macaroni salad got lodged in his tear duct…from the inside. The staff medic eventually got it out, but only after he’d spent fifteen minutes on bottled O2 to get him to calm down. Some of the guys swore I must sit at home all night plotting the next day’s jokes and practicing potential scenes so that "if Brian says this, I'll do this and shimmy left. But if he does this instead, then I'll say this other thing and do a shimmy to the right, with a spin at the end. Yeah....perfect."

No, that’s not the kind of theme I mean. Having a theme and purpose does not mean having everything planned out in advance. It means, knowing the general theme and purpose for which you are here on earth and acting toward that end in everything you do. It means having a general big-picture attitude toward life and making your decisions based on that picture of how things should be in the context of how they are. Now that I am firmly established in middle age and can look back on over forty five years of life and see a theme that affects and impacts every part of what I have done from choice of my spouse to career choices, homes, friends, artistic expression, etc. 

In my writing I try to include that same understanding into my characters’ lives as I flesh them out. For instance in my novel 65 BELOW Marcus 'Mojo' Johnson has several minor themes, those little streams I mentioned above, including finding peace after twenty years as a Marine sniper, rebuilding his family homestead, finding something to replace the woman who rejected him. The overarching theme though, and that which drives the story, is Marcus's undeniable need to protect the innocent even when they don't know they're in trouble, and even if it costs his life and/or happiness. Through all the stories involving Mojo that is the major overlying theme that guides his life. He is the sheep dog amongst wolves.

Now is that theme of Mojo's my own theme? Is it the same theme as my other characters may have? Some parts maybe, but other characters like Kharzai and Mike Farris, and Lonnie Wyatt have other general themes toward which they are working. All of their disparate themes flow together into what I believe is my own life theme: Being a godly man trying to live a Christ-like worldview in a secular world.

Are my books therefore Christian literature? I was turned down by every Christian publisher I approached on account of the realistic violence and unrepentant warrior attitude of my characters. Those characters, retired USMC Master Sergeant Marcus ‘Mojo’ Johnson, USMC Major Mike Farris, CIA Field Agent Kharzai Ghiassi, Alaska State Trooper Lonnie Wyatt, are people like the biblical King David, who had no qualms killing when necessary, yet was able to dance with unabashed joy when worshipping before the Lord. The overall theme that is threaded through all of my books is, as far as I can see, the theme of my own life. That worldview, and the actions my characters take, the doors they chose to open and those they choose to avoid are all informed by that worldview, that meaningful motif, that direction…my theme.

 What is the theme of your story and or your life?
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Monday, August 5, 2013

An Ancient Book, A Dream - A True Genealogy put to Story

Ma - Horse
As a writer I see the world around me in the form of stories.  Each person has a past, a present and a future. A beginning and an end. The line of time between birth and death, those latter two being like well-wrought book covers, constitutes the story of each individual that sets foot in this mortal domain. The creation of these stories forms the ever shifting web of what we call life, each strand intersecting other strands, crossing, connecting, joining, consuming. After the death of each protagonist the vast majority of those stories are quickly forgotten like a cob wed swept from the corner of a ceiling. There are some that are preserved for much longer. Those are the stories that become the history of the world as we know it. We are often told that these who are remembered were the greater beings of their particular generation, but this is not necessarily so.

Those whose tales have made their way into history were not necessarily the greater peoples who shaped history, they were merely the ones whose stories were repeated, and remembered by later generations because they were written down. Whether in words, in art or in some other type of representation, their tales were kept and remembered long beyond the point where the protagonist’s lives, loves, and struggles have ceased along this mortal strand. Not only were their stories written down, but they were repeated, translated and kept up to date to ensure future audiences would hear the story of the ones whose stories we have.

First Page from the
History of the Ma Family in Korea
I happen to own a similar tale.  I doubt anyone reading this blog has heard of this historical character, unless of course you happen to be a member of a small family in South Korea descended from a man named Ma Chun Mok. My wife, Ma Mi Kyong, happens to be a direct descendent of said famous ancestor. We know this because we are in possession of the genealogy and eulogy of Ma Chun Mok himself that has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly 700 years.  There were other parts of the family history dating back even farther, to nearly 500 AD, but those were apparently lost during the Korean War in 1951 when my wife’s father, then an eight year old boy, was running for his life from the invading North Korean and Chinese armies with a load of books entrusted to him by his grandfather. He ended up losing many of the priceless ancient books, some falling out of his pack, others traded for food to survive, the child being unaware of their real value. They may well still exist somewhere in Korea but we don’t know where. The first page of the oldest book we have is pictured on the left, the Chinese character for their name is on the right. 

General Ma Chun Mok
(c. 1400AD)
An interesting fact about their name is that there are at least eight different characters pronounced “Ma” in Chinese. Each different character has a very different meaning. 磨 means ‘mill’ or ‘grind’, a worker’s name like the English ‘Miller’. 碼 means ‘code’ or ‘counting’ and may have been a family of accountants or tax collectors. Another ‘Ma’ has a much darker meaning. 魔literally means ‘Magic’, but in a very negative sense, like black magic, evil like a dark sorcerer. My wife’s name symbol is which means ‘Horse’ and would’ve been used for royalty or high ranking military families. Ma Chun Mok was born in the city of Yangcheng, Shanxi province China in 1358. Something I have yet to discover (Mongolian invaders? War with neighboring states?) caused his family to move to Korea, then called Koguryeo, where he joined the army Taejo, the man who would bring the end of the Koguryeo Dynasty and ushered in the Joseon Dynasty that would last over five hundred years from 1392-1897. Ma Chun Mok became the supreme commander of Taejo’s army.
During General Ma’s lifetime he got to witness the introduction by the Great King Sejong of the Korean Alphabet, the first alphabet of any Asian nation designed to be easily learned by every level of society, from peasant to emperor, propelling Korea into an era of great social impact and technical advancement. This is the same Great King Sejong who still appears on Korean money and is revered throughout their culture.

A Faithful
of the
Ma Family
The title of one of the books we have is “The Faithfully Told Family History of General Ma Chun Mok”. In it there is a record of General Ma serving the first four kings of the Joseon dynasty.  Of what we’ve been able to translate, there are several specific lines that really caught my eye. In one King Taejon makes General Ma a Duke over a region of the country. In another line Great King Sejong, 4th in line after Taejon, gives him a special title of Most Honorable, True and Faithful General Ma. In the way Korean linguistics works, this is an amazingly honorific title. It signifies that as a man Ma Chun Mok was beyond reproach. He accepted no bribes, could not be swayed from his loyalty and lived an honorable life even in the face of death. His impact was so great that even today, nearly seven hundred years after his birth, a group of his descendants still holds a memorial service for him. My wife had no idea of the depth of her own past until we started researching these books.

Way back in 1988, shortly after we were married, I had a dream. The dream involved a happy little kingdom in China that was invaded by five neighboring states that drove it off the continent. They escaped the slaughter by hiding in a ring of mountains in Korea until their enemies stopped the pursuit. When I told my wife about my dream she was speechless at first. Eventually she told me about her family’s history as far as she knew, which was very little at the time. She grew up in a busy town called Dong Du Chon about an hour east of Seoul, just outside Camp Casey US Army base. Two uncles and her father and mother owned a string of shops that peddled wares to the soldiers ranging from R&B records, to 60’s & 70’s Mod-Squad clothes, to transistor radios and other trinkets and technologies any US soldier would pay cash for. One day her Harabujee (grandfather) took her on a trip to meet some other relatives. The trip involved a long train ride, followed by several hours on a bus, then a five mile hike off the road system into a mountainous area. Upon passing through a narrow valley into a place surrounded on all sides by tall jagged mountains they came to a large village. Painted on the outer walls of the vast majority of households was the name 馬or its Korean rendering ‘마‘, both of which are pronounced ‘Ma’.  At home her family were the only Ma among tens of thousands, and yet here was an entire village, over a thousand people, that shared her name. 
Map of Ma Chun Mok's tomb

Decades later, on a trip to visit her family in Korea for the first time since marrying me, my wife’s father gave her a keepsake: his copy of the family book. As I browsed through it I saw something that captured my imagination and sparked a time distant memory, the hiding place of my dream. The picture to the right is a page from the book showing the burial place of General Ma Chun Mok. Is this the location of the village where my wife’s relatives lived forty years ago? Is the place I saw in my dream a real place, and not a mere fantasy of dream webs conjured in my imagination while sleeping next to an Asian beauty I have always pictured as a Korean Princess. Were my muses awakening my mind to a memory not my own, but one which I am destined to write about. There is a story here, one which I intend to glean from these ancient texts. This is my life’s work, the story I live to write.

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