Reading books allows you to live life through another’s eyes. So does writing books. As a result I’ll never write a story about social injustice, or hopelessness. It would make me too depressed. There are plenty of things in this world that inspire outrage, or anger, or pity, or disgust. If you read a book that centers on any of those themes, you’ll be done with it in a few hours, perhaps unsatisfied, but relatively unscathed. If you write that same book you’ll have to live with those characters and situations for months or years, and that can be very unsettling. My novel With Artistic License is a story about Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. In it the main character is going through a divorce. To write fictional characters you have to put yourself in their place and see the world through their eyes. By the time I’d finished writing the novel I felt like I’d gone through a divorce myself, though I’ve been happily married for 40 years. The characters in my current work-in-progress have their problems, but no one’s situation is hopeless, and there are amusing moments, which keeps this writer happy.
I was hoping to finish by the end of the year, which now seems doubtful, but at least I’ll be spending that time with characters whose company I genuinely enjoy, whose problems are nothing too dire. As usual, I’m covering new ground. To be very successful as a writer (defined by the number of readers one has) it helps to stick to one genre. That way you can build a base of supporters. So far I haven’t covered the same ground twice. With Artistic License is a literary novel leaning toward dark romantic comedy. Time Management, a novel, is part fantasy, part historical adventure. Evelyn Marsh is a novel of psychological suspense. The one thing that ties them together is a wry sense of humor and uplifting endings.
Speaking of Evelyn Marsh, an audible edition will be coming out very soon. More on that in the next post.
In this era of unconstrained publishing, many authors give away their work for free. In principal I’m against the practice. I know of no other profession where the creator is expected to work for free. The average cost of my books runs to less than a penny a page, which I consider a bargain. Nonetheless, when you’re an unknown quantity it’s hard to get anyone to pay attention to creative work; there’s just too much available to winnow out the wheat from the chaff. Brand awareness has become more important than ever.
So in an effort to alert potential readers to my work, in the month of September I’m giving away four copies of Time Management, a novel, and five signed copies of Evelyn Marsh on Goodreads. You can find them here:
The usual question a stranger will ask after finding out I write fiction is, “Where do you get your stories?” There is no singular answer. Each story has its own genesis. I always see the beginning and the ending clearly. The middle part is always nebulous and takes a while to flesh out.
I wrote a failed novel called Fog Beach several years ago. The kernel of the story was planted fifteen years before that, when my brother was auditing a small oil company and found evidence of a scam involving government subsidies. There were a few good scenes in that book, but it was dense and too complicated to follow.
The bare bones concept of With Artistic License came to me in a dream, scene by scene over the course of a night. I dreamed of a six-year-old boy drawing on a wall and woke up laughing (I often laugh out loud in my sleep, which drives my wife crazy). I kept waking up laughing and jotting down notes before falling asleep and dreaming the next scene. By the morning I had the bones of a screenplay, but decided to explore the characters in more depth by telling it as a novel. The actual writing took three and a half years.
The concept of Time Management, a novel had been with me since I was a kid. I began writing it in my forties, abandoned it, picked it up again in my fifties, and finished it in my sixties. It took me a long time to figure out what the internal and external conflicts were, and once I had those in place it again took three and a half years to write.
Determined to work faster, I decided to write a novella next and kicked around a few ideas with my wife. I was just finishing up Time Management and we were driving through an affluent neighborhood of Santa Barbara looking at stately homes with their well-tended gardens, and imagining the occupants I wondered, “What would drive a normal, mild-mannered, well-educated woman to commit murder?” I put that idea on the back burner in May of 2015 and didn’t think of it again until I sat down on January first 2016 and began making notes. Evelyn was a short, sweet affair. I started the actual writing on April first and was finished on September first, a total of nine months from start to finish. There was a little editing and tweaking after that, but for all intents and purposes it was done.
For this new book (working title Rum Beach) I want to write an ensemble piece with several characters whose lives intersect in the small town of Rum Beach. I can’t tell you how or why a character springs to mind. They seem to lurk in the background and then step forward and say, “What about me? Tell my story.” I had several characters in mind and left them to simmer for seven or eight months, letting the story coalesce around them. The goal is to have the first draft written by the end of the year. It’s an ambitious goal, but something to shoot for.
This is my 17th blog entry, and as far as I can tell none of previous 16 have been read by anyone. So I’m going to assume this is a place for my private musings. I’ll imagine a reader coming across these posts after I’m dead, so if you’re that person you’ll be privy to a lot of blather and perhaps an epiphany or two. As of tomorrow EVELYN MARSH will have been out four months. In that time it has sold somewhere around 375 copies. The reviews have been good, which is of course gratifying.
I’m trying to concoct a new story. I want to write an ensemble piece about people in Moss Beach, although I’m calling it Rum Beach and moving the lighthouse to a more scenic location. I’ve come up with a few characters. There’s Emily Abbot, a closet novelist whose greatest strength (loyalty) is also her greatest weakness (as she’s taken for granted). There’s Steve Wexler, the erstwhile bassist for a long defunct band, who is still trying to ride on the crest of a fading celebrity. There is Gary Myron, a simple fisherman. And there is Tom Blankenship, a wine importer who unexpectedly meets Fate. I know how it starts. I know how it ends. But as usual the middle section eludes me. And setting the hook early alludes me. I really don’t know what the unifying concept is. How do all the characters tie together? I’m planning for a 230 page book. My only goal is to make it interesting enough for readers to continue to turn the pages to the end. I don’t know exactly how to pull it off. I’ve been trying to come up with an outline. It’s partly done, but I’m stymied on other parts. I believe in the efficacy of an outline, but I think an outline can be effective even if it’s not detailed. You really only need to know the purpose of a particular scene. I’ll explore the usefulness of an outline tomorrow. I’m tired tonight and want to get to bed.
Taped to the top of my computer monitor are the words: “Storytelling and writing are actually two entirely different skill sets.” I think that quote is attributable to K.M. Weiland. It’s what makes writing a novel so difficult for me, and so seemingly easy for James Patterson. He comes up with so many plots so fast that he has to rely on co-writers to help write all the stories that pour out of his head. Patterson is a storyteller first and a writer second. I wish I had his facility for coming up with compelling “what if” situations and following them through to a finished novel that readers can’t put down. Alas, I’m a writer first and a storyteller second. Some lucky bums are equally good at both (Stephen King comes immediately to mind). So for me storytelling is the hard part.
Hemingway wrote, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” I respectfully disagree. Had he said “My prose is architecture…” I’d agree wholeheartedly. For me, on the other hand, storytelling is architecture, style is interior design, and prose interior decoration. The first two come before the latter. Story and style are the skeleton, the actual writing adds flesh. And if the writing is to be more than a paint-by-the-numbers knockoff, the process must allow for serendipity, unforeseen juxtapositions and tangents.
I’m currently working on a story set on the San Mateo coast, where I’ve lived for the past 42 years. I’m getting to know the characters, their backstories, their motivations, their voices. I’m not yet quite sure how they all fit together, where their lives intersect, and what tone I want to adopt. Other than notes there isn’t much actual writing being done, and I’m getting antsy to start. But I still need to find that moment when all of the characters find themselves in the same place at the same time, and possibly even in the same pursuit. It’s a puzzle. Being an ensemble piece, I’ll require the assistance of more than one muse working in concert. I hope they’re able to get along.
I just finished reading Gwendy’s Button Box. If you’re a slow reader, this novella by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar will provide an evening of good entertainment. It’s a fascinating book from an author’s perspective, because it hooks the reader with a slightly creepy instigator and a totem, or magical object, that in the end becomes a perfect metaphor for the writer’s life. There is nothing extraneous in the telling of this story. It’s deceptively simple and compelling. It can also be read on different levels, and will remind some readers of King’s Lisey’s Story.
Of the 25 books I’ve read so far this year, most were at least entertaining, though a few were disappointing given the authors or the reviews. My favorites have been Daphne du Maurier’s haunting My Cousin Rachel; Nora Roberts’ thriller The Witness; Pat Barker’s thoughtful and beautifully written Regeneration; and Alexander McCall Smith’s My Italian Bulldozer.
For you Francophiles, lovers of good food and mysteries out there, the new Martin Walker book, The Templar’s Last Secret is out today. I think this is the tenth in the series. If you’re not yet a fan, you should probably start with the first one, Bruno Chief of Police. Bruno is one of the great characters in modern literature, and the plots and subplots are all refreshingly current and relevant, though the books are set in the ancient landscape of the Périgord. I’m looking forward to reading the new one this summer.
“But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well. You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself” — Garden Party, Rick Nelson
One of the things you learn early on in the fiction game is that you need to lose your ego, because it’s going to be tromped on. You have to learn to take criticism with equanimity, because you’re going to take a lot of abuse. Sometimes the criticism is constructive. In fact, I cut more than 10,000 words from WITH ARTISTIC LICENSE after beta readers all complained about the same thing (belaboring the protagonist’s daily grind at the office). Sometimes a story takes you in a direction the reader doesn’t want to go. TIME MANAGEMENT, A NOVEL, got rave reviews from most readers, but a few objected to the story taking a left turn (essentially changing genres) at the one quarter mark. It was planned, and most readers found that the most compelling aspect of the book. But it wasn’t for everyone. Similarly, I’ve had some wildly enthusiastic and flattering 5-star reviews for EVELYN MARSH. It also received a 1-star review that read as follows: “Offensive. Didn’t make it to chapter five. Used God’s name as a curse word. Returned.” Yes, indeed, one of my characters muttered a goddamn. It’s good she didn’t get beyond chapter five, because there are a couple of fucks in there too, not too mention some sexual content I’m sure she would have found offensive. C’est la vie. I’m not disturbed by her taking offense; I’m amused. But I did click on her name beside the review to see what else she’d reviewed. It turns out she mostly reads books on Christian scripture, which begs the question as to why she would choose a psychological suspense novel for reading material. The point is, no matter what you write, you can’t please everyone. Another reader strongly objected to the trope of the hunky pool boy, and another to Evelyn’s upper middle class lifestyle (“Who cares about rich people?”). Evelyn is who she is. Take her or leave her.
I can only write what is presented to me by the muse, or my subconscious, or the creative ether — whatever it is that sparks the imagination. It’s why I haven’t repeated a genre yet. I can’t please everyone, so I have to please myself. Nonetheless, I’m not here to break new ground, to expand the form, or break the rules. I’ll leave that to someone else. Because to me the purpose of literature is to communicate and entertain. If your prose is formless, or you try writing without punctuation, or write stream-of-consciousness novels with no story behind them, there’s a slim chance of holding a reader’s interest to the last page. There are rare exceptions, and they’re notable for it. In the old days (pre 2010 or so) that manuscript would have been rejected and end up in the bottom drawer of the writer’s desk, where it would languish until the writer’s heirs threw it in the dustbin. Today any writer, talented or not, can self-publish a novel and put it up on Amazon. There is no agent, or editor, publishing house, or literary critic to prevent it. The gatekeepers have all left the building. The final arbiter of a work’s worth is you the reader. If I write a decent book, I’ll have a chance at finding readers. If I disappoint them, I’ll lose readers. Simple as that. The publishing world has become very democratic.
In celebration of their second anniversary, Kindle Press is putting all Kindle Scout winning books on sale for 99c through April 3rd, 2017 (you can find them all at KindleScout.amazon.com). Evelyn Marsh has only been out a week. It normally sells for a modest $2.99. I’m anxious to see how the 99c sale price will affect the number of books sold. And I want to sell lots of books. Like anyone else, I’d like to be remunerated for the many months or years it takes to write a novel and bring it to market. But more importantly, a sale means a reader. It’s also a validation that what you’ve written is entertaining enough to attract readers. I have no use for esoteric books that sit unread on the shelf. I have no interest in being remembered a hundred years from now for experimental prose that no one will read today. I’m writing to connect with readers during my lifetime. Finding readers is no easy task. You’d think with the millions of English speaking readers in the world, it would be easy enough to attract the attention and loyalty of a few thousand. It turns out it isn’t easy at all. It takes craft and art to write the story. It also takes marketing and promotional skills that take time time and effort away from writing.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of self-published writers today are only too happy to give away their work to attract the attention of readers. My own feeling about this is that the only time it makes sense to give away a book, is if it’s the first in a series, which gets the reader hooked and ready to buy and read more. Otherwise it’s disrespectful and a disservice to the writer. Ebooks are so cheap that a 350 page novel sells for about a penny a page, or less. I don’t know of any other product or art form that is valued so cheaply.
Evelyn Marsh launched this week. In preparation for Kindle Press’s 2nd anniversary sale, they’ve revamped my cover. The old cover, on the left, had a noir feel to it, due to the old house, font etc., but it didn’t tell the reader much about the content. The new cover has a more modern feel, though still in the noir tradition, and the house, the pool and the stiletto heels don’t reflect the descriptions in the book, but it does clue the reader into the genre, and Kindle Press feels the new cover will spur sales. Your comments?
Evelyn Marsh is a Kindle Scout winner! As a Kindle Scout selection, Kindle Press has acquired the ebook and audible rights and will promote the book on Amazon.com. It’s currently undergoing editorial review and should be available around March, 2017.
In June I wrote a blog entry regarding Evelyn Marsh.Let me tell you a little about Evelyn. The concept arose a couple of years ago when my wife and I were vacationing in Santa Barbara. I was getting toward the end of writing Time Management: a novel. I said I’d kind of like to write a mystery, but I’ve neither been a policeman nor a private detective. I’d have to take a different tack. Furthermore, I wanted to show how thin the veneer of civilization is when your loved ones are threatened. What would turn a mild-mannered woman of privileged means into a cold-blooded murderer? I suspect we all have the capacity to commit murder, given the right circumstances.
I put the idea of Evelyn on the back burner as I finished and worked on marketing Time Management. With Artistic License, and Time Management, each took more than three years to write (many more, if you count false starts), and were both around 130,000 words (370 – 400 pages, depending on the font, etc.). That’s a long time to live with the same characters and story. I thought it would be a fun exercise to attempt a novella instead, to see if I was capable of writing at a faster pace. I planned to write 51,000 words, which, at 300 words per page, works out to 170 pages. I began planning on February 1st, 2016, started writing on April 1st, and was finished on September 1st. It came in at 51,161 words, right on target. So as an exercise it was entirely successful.
It’s probably not a good business model to write in different genres, because your readers may not follow where you choose to lead. With Artistic License is my take on a Romantic Comedy, which may or may not appeal to fans of Time Management, a time travel fantasy. Evelyn Marsh is, I suppose, a psychological thriller. A blurb for Evelyn Marsh might read something like this: “Everyone agreed Evelyn wouldn’t hurt a fly, but they didn’t count on a mother’s ferocity, nor the fury of a woman scorned.”
Written in the spirit of Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley), Evelyn Marsh begins with the provocative statement that “Evelyn’s first murder was an accident.” It’s only a mystery in the sense that the rest of the book exists to explain the implication embedded in the first line. It’s a why-done-it and how-done-it, instead of a who-done-it. I don’t know if it will appeal to fans of With Artistic License, or Time Management, but Evelyn demanded I write her story, and I couldn’t very well refuse.
I really enjoyed my time with her. I had an outline to point me in the general direction, but most days Evelyn presented a nice surprise I hadn’t counted on. I feel privileged to be allowed to tell her story. I hope you enjoy your time with her as well.
I decided to submit Evelyn Marsh to the Kindle Scout program (www.kindlescout.com), where authors have ONE MONTH to present excerpts of unpublished works, and readers vote on which books they’d like to see published. The advantage of the program for authors is that books that are selected receive promotion on Amazon.com, which means thousands of readers. My campaign runs through October 17th. I hope you’ll pay it a visit and register your vote. In any case, whether selected by Kindle Scout or not, the ebook version of Evelyn Marsh should be published around December 1st.
Three weeks after the ebook publication of Time Management, I prepared the manuscript for print. The electronic version scales itself automatically depending on whether you’re reading it on a computer, a tablet, or a phone. The print version, on the other hand, is set in stone. The chapter headings begin about a third of the way down the page, which serves a couple of purposes. First, it simply looks less crowded. More importantly, it allows for minor adjustments, so you don’t end up with a chapter ending with just a line or two on the last page.
In addition, the font makes a big difference in the appearance of the text. For instance, the font in this blog is “sans serif” (without serif), which is a little cleaner and simpler to read electronically, but I prefer a serif font in print. What’s the difference?
Unfortunately, this website is preformatted and I can't show you the nuances, but this particular paragraph is presented in a seriffed font (albeit not one that I like).
I played around with a number of different fonts. The classic is Times New Roman. I used a variation on that called Caslon. Another form of spacing is called leading, which is the space between the lines. As you can imagine, the space between the lines has a great effect on the number of pages in the printed book. One version was 327 pages, but I found the type looked a little cramped. In the end I decided to use Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (a highly recommended novel) as a template for both font and leading, making the book 370 pages, which is much more pleasing to my eye, though the 43 extra pages did bump the cost of production up a dollar fifty.
Reviewing the novel for print, I found one more typo, which astounds me, as this book has been read by several editors and a couple dozen people from my Advance Team. I also added one phrase on the last page for clarification, which I subsequently changed in the ebook version as well.
Lastly, for both the ebook and print versions I opted for the Goodfellow font for the title, which was also used for a first edition of Samuel Langhorn Clemens’s The Innocents Abroad, first published in 1867 and playing a minor role in this story.
I’m currently working on a novelette (I’m hoping to bring it in at less than 200 pages) called Evelyn Marsh, in the spirit of Patricia Highsmith. It’s only a mystery in the sense that the rest of the book exists to explain the implication embedded in the first line: “Evelyn’s first murder was an accident.”
Evelyn Marsh is a character study. I don’t know if it will appeal to readers of my other books, but I’m enjoying my time with Evelyn. She’s an interesting lady. She’s a mild mannered artist, mother and wife. Some think she’s too timid. But don’t underestimate her. As the author, I might say I’m just getting to know her and what makes her tick. You’ll meet her for yourself next fall, if not sooner.
You can consider this an addendum to my previous post on covers, where I asked for opinions and received none.
When I was close to finishing Time Management I set about designing a cover. I took a photo of some of my watches and manipulated that photo in Photoshop to come up with a gold bas relief (it would make a great embossed cover). I thought it looked really nice. I wanted the font to look like something from the 19th century, and I found a first edition of Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (published in 1867), which used a font I later identified as Goodfellow (also used in several of novelist Christopher Moore’s covers). The result was this:
This is the cover I submitted with for my Kindle Scout campaign. I still like this cover; it’s elegant. But sandwiched between 3D covers on Kindle Scout, it looked a little flat. So I hired a designer, Perry Kirkpatrick (www.perryelisabethdesign.com), who had designed the cover of my previous book, With Artistic License. I gave her some watch photos and she came up with three different designs. They were all good, but not what I was looking for. She was very patient with me and worked on an hourly basis as I asked her to try first one thing then another. It was a long process as I kept asking for more design elements, and after many iterations I was somewhat pleased with this one:
I still like it. It looks very professional and intriguing, but there was still something lacking. Part of the problem, I realized was the uppercase treatment of the title (I prefer the Title Case). But Perry suggested it might be too busy. I thought about that, and realized that sometimes simpler is better, particularly when viewing thumbnail covers on a computer screen or phone. So I went back to designing the cover myself, with the goal of finding something that worked well on a tablet or phone. I won’t bore you with the many subtle iterations of that cover. The one I finally settled on was this:
I preferred another version with the watches shrunk to a smaller size, but a poll of more than 160 potential readers preferred this cover by a margin of over almost 4 to 1. So there you have it — the evolution of a cover design. Is one better than another? I’ll leave that to you.
When searching online for a new book to read, readers have only three things with which to make a judgement: The excerpt, the blurb, and the cover. For Time Management, I’m reasonably confident the excerpt is sufficiently compelling. The blurb may need work (I’m not an ad man). But one’s first impression will always be of the cover (we really do judge a book by its cover). So I’ve decided to try out two cover designs and I’m asking for your opinion. Please email me at email@example.com (or double clicking on the title of this post to bring up the comment bar) to cast your vote for 1. The gold cover, or 2. The farmhouse cover.
My neighbor, friend and occasional traveling companion of many decades is Grammy nominated and Emmy award-winning composer, Christopher Hedge. Over the years we’ve had a number of conversations about the best way to nurture creativity. If he were a writer, he’d be a “pantser,” which is to say someone who flies by the seat of his pants, progressing intuitively forward from one idea to another, (more…)
In the old days, before the publishing industry fell apart, writers had to pass two gatekeepers before they could hold a book in their hands. A writer would submit a novel to an agent. Once accepted by an agent, the writer would then give 10% of any profits to the agent in return for a first edit and advice, and to be introduced to the publishers with whom the agent worked. Once accepted by a publisher, an (more…)
My mother made a pact with me when I was three: If I didn’t beg for a treat when we went marketing, she would buy me a book. So as she marketed, I perused the children’s books, bringing home Mr. Wishing Went Fishing; Bobby and His Airplanes; The Pokey Little Puppy; The Saggy Baggy Elephant; From Timbuktu to Kalamazoo; The Little Red Caboose; Fuzzy Dan, etc. My parents and siblings read those books to me. My classmates and I learned to read in first grade by way of “Dick & Jane” books. (more…)
This blog will be the place where I discuss the creative process. It’s also a place where I’ll occasionally solicit advice from my readers. However, as the love of reading inspired me to spend my life writing, I’ll also blog about reading in general, books I’ve read and books I’m currently reading. I’m hoping that you, dear reader, will participate with your comments. Let’s start off with a few of my favorite books, just off the top of my head and in no particular order: (more…)