Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Sandra Carey Cody is the author of four novels published by Avalon Books.  She lives near Philadelphia, PA with her husband and works as a legal secretary.  In her spare time, she entertains her grandchildren, volunteers, and writes.  Moving to new cities throughout her life, Sandra says, "books have been the bridge to new friends."  Her first three books in her Jeanie Conors series are, PUT OUT THE LIGHT - June 2005, CONSIDER THE LILLY - February 2008, BY WHOSE HAND -April 2009.  Her new book, TO LOVE AND NOT DESTROY, is not part of the Jennie Connors series; this novel is set in a folk museum and examines the ways in which destiny is shaped by family secrets.  E. B. Davis

I’m deep into edits for the first book I ever wrote. Oddly enough, it’s about to become my fourth published novel. I’ll never forget the feeling of fulfillment when I finished that manuscript, thinking, “No matter what happens, I’ve written a book. A whole book!” Of course, I wanted it to be a published book, but published or not, the writer in me knew that the real accomplishment is in the writing.

That book took shape over a fairly long period of time. I started out with a vague idea of a story I wanted to tell. After some trial and error, I managed to shape my idea into a coherent storyline. About the time I finished my first (very) rough draft I was lucky enough to find a critique group that was made up of writers who were honest and supportive, plus they all possessed that quality indispensable in a critiquer–a sense of humor. We laughed a lot, learned a lot and, sometimes, cried a little. With their help, I coaxed my manuscript through several more drafts, until finally I had something I was proud of. Convinced I was ready, I joined the Wide World of Agent Seekers. I sent LEFT AT OZ off to a Big Time Agent. (Why not aim high?) I’m sure you can guess what happened–a form rejection. I knew (intellectually at least) that rejection was possible, even likely, but nothing really prepares you for your first rejection letter. Nevertheless, I soldiered on. A couple more agents rejected it–and, then a couple more. So much for soldiering. I put the manuscript away, vowing to think of it not as a failure, but as a learning experience. And it was; I’ve since learned that you don’t abandon a manuscript because of four or five rejections. More important, I learned to glean every possible scrap of advice from a rejection.

Fortunately, during the whole submission and rejection process, I’d kept writing and, by the time I had five rejections, I had another book to send out. This time around, I was a little more savvy about where my stories fit, so I sent it directly to Avalon, a publisher who specializes in books like mine. They accepted it and PUT OUT THE LIGHT became the first book in my Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor series. I was elated, but also a little sad, sorry that my firstborn was being left behind. I’ll spare you the details, but the short version is that two more books (CONSIDER THE LILLY and BY WHOSE HAND) have followed.

Still, I couldn’t get that first book out of my head so last fall I pulled up the file, read it through with fresh eyes–and yes, I still loved it. But I could see there were places where it could be improved. I sent a query off to Avalon asking if they would be interested in publishing a prequel. While I waited for their answer I rewrote and polished as much as I could.

Avalon responded, “Sure, send it in.” So I did. There was no guarantee they would publish it, but there never is. Each time you send a book off, there’s the possibility of rejection. It looks, though, like this book’s time has finally come. There are still edits to be made, but my firstborn is on its way to publication next spring (probably in April). I wish I could tell you its name, but that’s one of the issues I’m grappling with–the editor asked if I would consider a different title. It’s a hard decision. I like the title and believe that it fits the story on several levels. On the other hand, they’re the professionals when it comes to marketing. I have to distance myself enough to consider what three or four (maybe a few more) words will hint at the inner story and pique a reader’s interest enough to make him reach for the book. Right now, I’m stumped; it’s a problem to be solved. When I figure it out, there’ll be another problem. That’s okay. It’s all part of the double-edged joy of writing.

The important thing is, after almost ten years, the book that refused to be forgotten is emerging from my computer and edging its way toward bookshelves.

How about you? Do you have books/projects waiting their turn to emerge? If you do, don’t waste any more time. Persistence is more important than genius.

Sandra Carey Cody

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Writer on Vacation, Part II

Last week I introduced you to a few characters met on our Canadian trip. We’re still on the road and had some more interesting encounters.

Jan and I walked “old Montreal” on our first day in the city and saw a movie shoot. Like moths to bright lights we wandered over to see what was happening. The crew was on break and we stopped next to a guy in his late fifties dressed in buckskin. He’s Mohawk and one of the actors. In profile his nose was a chiseled tomahawk. Looking directly at us he had the most piercing light blue eyes I have met in a long time. They’re courtesy of a Scottish father; his mother is pureblood Mohawk.

We chatted about the Iroquois confederacy and the wars between the Iroquois and the Europeans, first against the French and later against the American revolutionaries. Through his mother, he had an ancestor, John Norton, who was involved in the battles in upstate New York when the Americans sent armies to attempt to conquer Montreal. My great-great-great-great grandfather also fought in the War of 1812. He was the surgeon at Sackets Harbor. Although our two ancestors probably never met, they most likely had acquaintances who did.

Our chance meeting once again emphasized the small, interconnected nature of our world.

That got me to thinking about the six-degrees of separation that purports to bind us all together. According to a Wikipedia article Frigyes Karinthy postulated that a link between any two humans can be constructed using at most six steps. Statisticians have predicted that for residents of the US, only three links are needed – in part because of blogs such as this.

The first time I was in Montreal was 1967 as part of a school trip to the Exposition, most of which was located on the Ile Sainte-Hélène and Ile Notre-Dame. The US pavilion—the Biosphere—was inspired by Buckminster Fuller and now contains a museum dedicated to sustainable living, which was our reason for now being on the Ile Sainte-Hélène. The image that most caught my eye occurred as were waiting on the Metro platform for our return to the city proper. A group of children had been swimming and under watchful eyes going through the turnstiles and lining the platform for the next train. The kids were grouped in twos or threes, chatting, giggling, making jokes. Trailing at the end of the group was the child [picture] his dragging towel a metaphor. What was his story?

In the fitness room at the hotel, I slogged my five miles on the treadmill and watched in the mirror a guy using the weight equipment. He looked like a guy in his mid-thirties who had let his strength go to flab. At each piece of equipment he went through a routine of puffing himself up like a blowfish before doing the exercise and then shaking out his muscles afterwards. I noticed, however, his neck muscles never strained at the exertion. After each exercise, he would look to see if anyone was watching, and then, only noticed by my sidelong glance in the mirror, he would reach down and change the position of the pin in the weights several positions lower. After this charade he moved on to the next piece of equipment. What was the purpose of that? Was he was trying to impress the rest of us in the room with the total performance and hoped we might check to see what weights he was using? Was the weight change to impress whoever came next to use the equipment?

Your story if you want it. I will say it is ofttimes amazing what we do to lie to ourselves while we think we are fooling the world.

I’m starting to get a bit antsy with these cities. We preceded the madness of the G8 and G20 meetings in Toronto by a few days, met 35,000 Rotarians overwhelming the city of Montreal and now in Halifax, the Canadian fleet is in port and the Queen will be coming to town next week.

About time for us to get out into the country, which is what most of next week should entail.

~ Jim

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Homeward Pilgrimage: Horror and Melodrama Revisited

Father’s Day meant a trip back to my hometown of York, Pennsylvania. I have lived in the D. C. area since I went to college many years ago. When I cross the Mason-Dixon Line going north, I get a cramp in my stomach and wonder how I will survive the weekend. Yes, Thomas Wolfe was too right.

Dad, who has not been ambulatory for five years, lives in a nursing home. When the grandsons are in town, we take him to one of my siblings’ houses for dinner and a ride around the countryside. At eighty-nine, Dad, for the good and bad, is mentally acute. Yes, wonderful that he knows what is going on, and yet, living in a nursing home for five years, bad as well.

A doctor once told my sister that his sympathy is reserved for patients like my father. Alzheimer’s? They’re so removed from reality that his sympathy goes to their relatives. I live one hundred miles away and see him once a month. He’s lucky though. My brother and sister live in York and visit him each, on average, five times per week, so his life could be a lot worse. I’m thankful my father was a risk taker. He squeezed every drop out of life when he was able. Now, I don’t know how he gets by day to day.

Fiction dramatizes real life, but rarely boils down its essence. Horror writer Brian Keene based some of his books in my hometown, which, at one time, was the suicide capital of the U. S.  Real horror isn’t portrayed in Stephen King or Brian Keene’s books. Real horror is being unable to rely on your body anymore. Real horror is dependence on others when you are an adult. Real horror is losing your dignity. And real horror, is watching and knowing that this same fate could be yours. I’ve never wanted to write cheap thrills horror.

My hometown spews soap opera storylines that TV writers couldn’t fathom. I stayed with my sister and her significant other, Jerry, while in York. We sat out on the screen porch and talked, and then Jerry told me York tales. I sat astounded, listening and wondering how I could weave the story into my fiction. Let me just allude to factory owners, the government, radioactive waste, the Susquehanna River, indictments, drug trafficking charges and ex-Yorkers now living in Costa Rica in exile. I could write a true crime book based on the tales of all these “upstanding citizens.” But, that isn’t my aim. I could write a melodrama based on the true story as well, but I have an aversion to it. Somethings never change. I’ll get the sequel on my next visit home.

Sound like something JR Ewing would do? Yes, this is just my hometown. Home sweet home! No wonder I get a pain in my stomach when I cross the Mason Dixon Line. True life is stranger than fiction. And most of the time, I like fiction better. I create it and control it. Do I retreat into fiction? You can bet on it! And if you blame me, well, I can tell you a tale or two that might just change your mind.

My mother was traveling once and ran into a guy who temporarily played for the York White Roses, a minor league baseball team of yesteryear. When my mother said she was from York, he replied, “That’s Peyton Place.” To which my mother replied, “You’re telling me! I’m on the cast.” Yes, Mom and Dad were the fodder of gossip during my teen years. Oh, the joy of being a mid-size town gal with notorious parents.

A friend of mine once said that she likes stories with happy endings. That’s why I write fiction and want to create new stories not based on reality. Reality, like the smart kid in the neighborhood now serving 8-10 for assault with a deadly weapon, never quite lives up to our expectations.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Q & A Part II

Last week Jim, Jordaina, Pauline and I answered questions about our reading likes and dislikes. This week, we focus on our writing. Please let us know how you would answer these questions.

What makes one set of characters ripe for a series? How has the author set up the characters for continuing the story?

PA: A character for a series usually has depth and potential for growth. However, Kinsey Millhone doesn’t seem to age or change much but she remains interesting because she’s clearly drawn and Grafton’s books are well-written.

EBD: The difference I see between a stand-alone book and a series is in conclusions. In a series, the character’s back story shows just enough to further the reader’s curiosity about the character. The main story may also have unanswered questions, which spurs the reader to continue reading the story. Of course, in a stand-alone book, all the major story lines are tied up neatly or nearly so. What I find annoying are obvious hooks to the next book, and this annoyance is a recent phenomenon that I think has come about because of marketing. For example, in Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series, she always came to a resolution of the story and started the next book with a new case. Recently, the series has focused on one recurring villain who Jury can’t catch. Perhaps Grimes was the one who instigated this change, but after three books, Jury still hasn’t caught the guy and the reader is left frustrated. It is also hard for the reader to keep track of the story because since she writes two series, it may be more than a year between books. Ian Rankin’s last Inspector Rebus novel, publicized as his final Rebus novel, he leaves the reader with the villain lying in a hospital bed without a plot conclusion. This tactic is an obvious marketing ploy annoying to the reader, even if we are glad, it really isn’t the “last” Rebus novel.

JMJ: It’s really important not to kill your character off in book one if you plan to make it a series.
Joking aside, I think any interesting character can be the basis of a series as long as the book has not already answered all the interesting questions about the character.

JSR: I think that’s a tricky question to answer. I can only say you have to make the characters likeable enough to want to follow through a series of adventures.
That said, I found Laurell K Hamiltion’s Anita Blake thoroughly dislikable but kept reading until book six because I really enjoyed the rest of the characters.

Are you writing a series or a stand-alone book, and why?

JMJ: Yes. Every book I work on is a standalone, at least until it sells. However, BAD POLICY, my WIP that I will be searching for an agent later this summer or in early autumn and CABIN FEVER, which is in its second draft, have a common set of characters.
I am also sketching out a futuristic novel that will have one character overlap (he’ll be very, very old).

JSR: I view all four of my WIP’s as series, for no other reason than I really enjoy writing all of the characters but any of them could be read as a standalone.

PA: I plan on writing a series but at least the first two books can stand alone.

EBD: I’ve been told to write a stand-alone book first. Then, if it sells, the publisher may want to continue the series, but to write it as a series from the beginning is presumptuous. Of course, I’d love to have a series and that leaves me with a dilemma because I planned to leave one big resolution outstanding. If my concept is found intriguing, then I will let the publisher decide. I can resolve the dilemma if pressed.

What POV are you using and why have you chosen it?

JSR: All are written in first person. Aurora North started out in third person but I felt first person suited her, and my style for her, much better.

JMJ: BAD POLICY is written in first person POV. CABIN FEVER uses first person for the protagonist and third person for four other characters.

EBD: I’ve never written a book in first person, which is strange because a lot of beginning writers chose this POV, but I’ve found it very limiting. In my second book, A Travel Guide to Murder, one of the elements of the plot is timing. My characters are shown in different chapters acting simultaneous to one another, effecting the plot and each other. This timing can’t be shown in first person. In Sparkle Days, I want to show different POVs so that one character's actions impact another’s actions, not timing as much as character driven action. Again, the third person POV is my best choice because it is less limiting.

PA: I’ve just finished a novel in first person and I’m planning my next novel in multiple viewpoints. A different point of view makes for a different story for both the reader and the writer.

What type of mystery are you writing?

PA: I’m writing an amateur sleuth because I feel most comfortable writing this type of mystery and because I feel most able to develop this character.

JSR: A paranormal which has no actual paranormal happenings in it, a paranormal which has plenty of paranormal happenings, a YA urban fantasy and a not YA urban fantasy.

EBD: My first book, Janet: Drunk and Disorderly is a traditional mystery. My second novel, A Travel Guide to Murder, is a comedic romance mystery. Sparkle Days, my third, is a paranormal romance mystery. I love a traditional mystery, but sales are dwindling in the traditional market. Writing subgenre adds interest to the story and expands the universe of creativity because normal boundaries need not be kept and subplots are woven into the main plot just like the back story. There are more layers, keeping the reader interested.

JMJ: Very good ones, but of course, I would think that. A medium-boiled amateur sleuth probably best describes my works. The futuristic novel seems to want to be a thriller.

What turns you off a character after you've already followed them through two or more books?

JSR: If the character doesn’t grow or learn from their experiences or mistakes. To use Pauline’s example, Stephanie Plum is still the same awful bonds agent she was fifteen books ago. I know there’s humour in her ineptitude but when she’s making the same mistakes over and over again it becomes annoying.
I don’t need her to be Bruce Willis, but I do need something to show me she’s learned from the last few times her skips have climbed out the window on her for me to keep reading.

PA: With Stephanie Plum, it was the exploding cars and her sidekick, the ex-prostitute who always wears outrageous clothes and wants to eat junk food.

EBD: That situation usually doesn’t happen to me. I like the character in combination with the writing or I don’t. What sometimes does happen is that I won’t like a first book of the series and then try the second and love it, as if the first book was a trial run for the author. In this instance, usually the subsequent books get better and better. Occasionally, I’ll love the first books in a series, but in the sequel, the writer’s good ideas ran dry. The only time a character turns me off is usually in chick lit when the situations become too inane.

JMJ: I want to read a new story each time building off the characters I have enjoyed getting to know. If a series becomes the same/old same/old, I’m on to something new.

Labels: Paranormal, POV, Series, Writing

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Characters, where do they all come from?

As mentioned by Jim Jackson in his blog, a person seen in passing can stimulate the imagination. Is the woman silently crying in the corner seat on the train mourning her lost child or husband? Has she just found out she has an incurable disease? Does she suffer from chronic depression and refuse to take her medication because it makes her fat? Or does she remember each morning on the way to work the person she killed and now stores in her freezer? She didn’t mean for her friend to die and the burden of a frozen body so close to the family dining table is overwhelming.

At your high school reunion, was that glamour-queen Chris you stood beside in the woman’s restroom? Could she really have such baggy skin and a roll of fat trapped above the waistband of her flared skirt? Chris was the envy of her graduating class destined to be a model and a lawyer. Could she really be an ex-addict and single mom?

The male you drooled over in math class with the body of an athlete and the brain of a nerd, is he really going home early so he can take his daughter to a sleep-over? He settled on landscaping as a career? Hadn’t he been destined for Washington or the DA’s office?

I have characters in three short stories I can’t seem to finish. The characters come to life but their stories remain incomplete—the wife of a Desert Storm vet who has PTSD, the mother of an adopted daughter who suffered multiple childhood traumas, and a woman who makes her life a hedonistic pathway with lovers supporting and worshipping her because she’s gorgeous and sexually adventurous. What made her who she is and what happens to her in her fifties? I want to keep my characters in short stories but perhaps they need more room and a larger supporting cast.

Lately, I’ve been developing women with absent, inadequate, or traumatic fathers. The daughters can take any of a dozen paths to overcome their loss. They can seek males who support and admire them and treat them like princesses, or they can mother and subjugate males, or they can entice and kill males. Perhaps they’ll reject all males for a career in law or medicine. What happens when the career is not enough?

I think my next interest will be in the sex crossover. Which male authors created the most convincing female characters? Do I have the ability to create convincing male characters with depth?

Then, I’m not forgetting ghosts, poltergeists, and cold drafts, half-bird and half-human creatures, meerkats with souls, vampires who live two hundred years rather than eternity (a gene failure), and all the potential life forms in deep space.

I’ve heard Stephen King used to say he found his ideas for stories in Utah. It doesn’t seem fair to blame one state for all the tortured and threatening characters that can emerge from the imagination. And that’s not counting all the replicas of people I dislike and turn into villains who get what they deserve.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ryck Neube Interview, Part III

Ryck Neube is one of my (Jim) writing mentors. I met Ryck at the Cincinnati Writers Project Wednesday night critique group. Ryck has published novels, novellas, but is best known for his short stories. Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, for example, has published his work numerous times.

In the final section of my interview with Ryck Neube he discusses how stolen stories in Russia lead to paying work; how he generates story ideas; and what happened the time he wrote a novel for the market instead of for himself. Click on the links to read the first and second segments.

JMJ: You’re also very popular in Russia, which happened by way of theft, if I recall?

RN: Yes indeed. Back at the turn of the century, my union, the Science Fiction Writers of America, approached me with the news that I was being pirated in Russia and would I care to join their class-action suit? At the time the Russian economy was in the crapper. I mean they had stagflation – the economy was just a disaster. I’m going, even if we win what do we get? So I said, no, I’m not going to sue people for stealing my work. It’s kind of cool. People are reading me. Last year Issly, the Russian equivalent of Asimov’s, which means “if” in Russian. (If was a famous American fiction magazine back in the day – the 30s and 40s.) The editor of the magazine tracks me down and goes, “We can’t pay you much, but we’d like to reprint these stories over here because you’re popular.” As a matter of fact, the first story – I’m told since I can’t read Russian – that a Russian science fiction critic asked, “Why is the best science fiction being written in Russia by an American hillbilly?”

JMJ: Any other foreign countries?

RN: I’ve won the 4th Barcelona novella competition and been published in Catalan – another language I can’t read. I’ve been published in China: Asimov’s is published throughout the English speaking world. Even my correspondent in New Zealand can pick it up on the shelves

JMJ: How do you get story ideas?

RN: I drink a lot. I started work on a story this morning where the opening line is “Can I borrow a cup of cat fur?” I still don’t know where that’s going, but I misheard someone saying that.

JMJ: That’s an advantage of getting older.

RN: Actually, going deaf may improve my fiction. The same’s true with perhaps my favorite story, which was in the Feral Parakeets anthology by CWP. I over-misheard someone asking, “Do you want to see JFK’s brain?” I have no idea what they actually said, but it doesn’t matter.

JMJ: If you could impart words of wisdom to writers, what would you tell them that’s unique from Ryck Neube?

RN: Writing is easy; revision sucks – it’s hard work, but you can’t do it enough. You may be one of those lucky people like Carlin Ellison who used to sit in the window of a bookstore, type a short story during the day and mail it out at the end of the day. The reason geniuses are geniuses is because they are that rare. The rest of us have to work and revise and revise and revise and revise. I really do think a lot of people come through critique group thinking, “This needs one whack and I’m ready to go to New York.” I’ve seen people like that crash and burn so many times, because that ain’t going to happen. It has to be polished to diamond brightness. And even then it requires luck.

One of the crappiest pieces I ever wrote, an editor sends me back this beautiful letter saying, “I loved this ever so much, but we bought one just like this three few months ago, so we’re going to pass on it.” If I had been four months quicker, it was mine. And that novel, by the way is the one that taught me I can’t write for the market, I’ve got to write for me. In the end it was like shoving hot bricks up my ass getting that project done, because I just wasn’t having any fun.

JMJ: And your plan for this one was to write for market?

RN: It’s one that I sat down, I read all the books, I read Locus. What are the common denominators for a quest novel? I had my plucky young sorcerer; I had a tribe of warrior Viking bears; I had dragons and adventure – I whored myself like a five-dollar street walker.

JMJ: And it worked, except for the timing. If you’d only done nine revisions instead of ten, you would have gotten it out four months earlier and…

RN: Exactly. Hoisted on my own petard. If you look at the things I’ve said about this novel, check out the novel/movie The Golden Compass – all the elements right there. This was done twenty years later, but I do highly recommend it as a movie, and it had Viking Polar Bears. Mine were grizzlies.

JMJ: That made all the difference in the world: The white versus the brown.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Writer On Vacation

Jan and I are on a three-week plus vacation. Much of the first part of the trip consists of traveling by train. Once we wend our way from St. Paul, Minnesota to Halifax, Nova Scotia, we’ll rent a car and go where we fancy. In between those two cities we spend time in Buffalo, Toronto and Montreal.

What does this have to do with writing?

Two things. It means I must shelve my normal routines. More importantly, it gives me 24 days to watch people. I give you these quick character studies. Feel free to steal them if you want.

In a train station: A short, shabby, slightly stooped woman shared the sleeper car waiting room with us. Jan and I talked with two volunteers who ride the rails and provide natural history commentary to folks in the club car. The woman hovered at the edge of those conversations but did not participate. Shortly before we boarded the train the woman handed Jan a piece of paper that said (and this is the essence, not an exact quote),

I normally don’t look this disrespectable. Something is wrong with my voice this morning and I can’t talk. Maybe it’s my boyfriend, the doctor.

Up until the last sentence we would have treated the incident as a little odd. With the last sentence a little odd grew to very strange.

If the train we are on has a dining car (in addition to a club car with junk food) we choose to eat in the dining car. The food is better and one or two other travelers join our table, which allows us (often) interesting conversation. During a breakfast the waiter ushered us to a table with a mother (70s) and son (aged 50). The mother had cared for her husband for several years before his death and now a year after his passing was taking this first trip accompanied by one of her eight children.

Her unpartnered son was a complainer. Nothing was quite as it should be. The train crew had been disrespectful to his mother; the dining car attendant was always in a hurry and wouldn’t take the time to answer questions; there was a piece of eggshell in his omelet—it needed to be returned to the kitchen; the rails were so rough through South Dakota that the train almost derailed while he was trying to sleep. We later overheard him making this same remark to another passenger…

I quickly understood why this guy didn’t have a life partner.

Should Jan or I manage to divert the conversation from the past atrocities committed upon them to their future plans for this trip, the answer would fairly quickly veer off into an anticipated problem, circle back to a recent one or veer off into a detailed recitation of some situation a fellow passenger had experienced on a previous trip.

We responded to one such reported incident with our truthful line that “we consider those kinds of things part of the adventure.”

“Oh, so do we,” the guy said.

You betcha. Now in my writing I tend to kill people or otherwise inflict bad things on them. Such a deserving victim, don’t you think?

In Toronto we ran smack dab into a three-day tattoo convention. I have never seen as much body art on display. We didn’t spend time touring the convention itself since the daily admission was $25 a day; otherwise we might have been tempted. From above we could see a sea of booths with examples of proffered tattoos. Some of the people the escalator delivered to the convention had no visible area left to tattoo. Studs were also displayed on many a part. Jan’s favorite was a guy who had a shaved head decorated with numerous studs. I can’t even imagine.

On Saturday we went to see the Toronto Blue Jays beat the San Francisco Giants. (That’s baseball for anyone who doesn’t know but does care.) I sat on the aisle. Next to Jan sat an officious young man in his twenties trying his hardest to impress the woman who had accompanied him. Perhaps she asked a question or two, but most of the commentary she and Jan were subjected to was simply the guy filling what would otherwise have been silence. I fantasized her slipping him a roofie so she could slip out of the stadium and get on with her life.

One really cool thing is the Toronto field has a retractable roof and we got to see it open. It runs on tracks and since we were in Mountie territory, I had a quick flash of Dudley Do-Right saving Nell from Snidely Whiplash after he had tied her to the rails.

Oh that’s right: I was going to allow you to make up your own stories with these characters.

In our hotel room we found a rubber ducky next to the tub. What stories can that duck tell?

Next post from Nova Scotia.

~ Jim

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Outer Banks, N.C., Ocracoke Island

This is the third and final week of touring North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the setting of my novel, Sparkle Days, a paranormal romance mystery. If you didn’t catch the first two weeks, Bodie Island and Hatters Island, check them out at "The Outer Banks-Bodie Island" and "My Setting-Hatteras Island"

The island of Ocracoke lies to the south of Hatteras Island, and although Route 12 does continue, you can’t drive there. Travel to Ocracoke is by water or air. Once on the island, you can resume driving.  The State of North Carolina runs a wonderful ferry system between the islands. The ferries are free between the islands, although they charge a small fee for the longer routes to the mainland. Ferries depart from Hatteras Village to Ocracoke Island.

The ride from Hatteras to Ocracoke takes forty minutes and places you at the northern tip of Ocracoke. Once off the ferry, Route 12 resumes and runs down the center of Ocracoke to the south. The island is sixteen miles long and the vast majority of the land is uninhabited. On the east, the Atlantic Ocean borders the island’s continuously stretching beaches. There are five four wheel drive access points spread along the sixteen mile beach. The National Park Service (NPS) provides parking lots, facilities and walkways to the beach built sporadically down the coastline for access by foot. Pamlico Sound borders the island on the west. On this side, the scenery varies among marshes, wetlands, forests, and pasture. Route 12 goes over several small bridges due to the fresh water creeks. Be sure and stop at the Pony Pasture, where the NPS protects and cares for the once wild island horses, a treat especially to the youngsters in your group.

There is only one town on the island, Ocracoke Village, which is located almost on the southwestern end. The picturesque village surrounds Silver Lake, a fresh waterhole. Ferries depart to the mainland or to Cedar Island. Ocracoke Village is small, but filled with restaurants, shops, motels, B & Bs, fishing excursions, and historical landmarks.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the ocean surrounding the Outer Banks is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic due to the shoals and dangerous currents. During WWI and II, German U boats used these waters to torpedo merchant ships helping the British war effort and the name Torpedo Junction became popular. In 1942, a German torpedo struck the HMS Bedfordshire. Residents recovered only four bodies. All hands were lost. A British Cemetery created for the four bodies, two unknown, became British soil. The cemetery is located in Ocracoke Village. The U Boats were effective weapons during both wars, but in 1943, the US Coast Guard along with help from US aircraft ended the U Boats’ reign of terror. Several U Boat crews were captured. To learn more about Torpedo Junction, go to 

Ocracoke’s most famous inhabitant, Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard, used the island for his hideaway while keeping out of the English Crown’s way. The colonies were part of England in Blackbeard’s time, and the monarchy had appointed governors to serve and carry out the monarchy’s dictates. Charles Eden governed North Carolina. Blackbeard and Eden formed an alliance that enabled Blackbeard to reside in North Carolina without fear of prosecution. He even married, though it ended unhappily for his bride, and spent time in Beaufort socializing with the local gentry. The Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, hated Blackbeard. Spotswood captured William Howard, Blackbeard’s quartermaster, and threatened him with hanging. Howard told of Blackbeard’s whereabouts, leading to a final showdown with Blackbeard and resulting in his beheading after a fearsome fight. Eden protested Spotswood’s persecution of Blackbeard saying Spotswood had no authority to go after Blackbeard in his jurisdiction, but Blackbeard was already dead.

A happy legacy of Blackbeard’s hideout is Howard’s Pub, which is one of the settings in my short story, “Implicated by a Phrase.” William Howard returned to Ocracoke. His descendents are alive and living well there. You can visit the Howard cemetery, located on Howard Street, and visit The Village Craftsman, a shop featuring exquisite woodwork, pottery and handcrafted jewelry, also located on Howard Street adjacent to the cemetery. The graves date back to William Howard’s time.

Noah Porter built the Ocracoke Lighthouse, located in the village, in 1822 making it the second oldest lighthouse in North Carolina. The bricks were covered with a weird mixture of lime, salt, ground rice, whiting and clear glue. Undoubtedly, this covering has been replaced, but remains true to its original color. The confederacy dismounted the Fresnel lens during the Civil War in an effort to disrupt water blockades the Union Navy created. The Union restored the Fresnel lens by 1864. During hurricanes, residents have used the lighthouse as shelter since it was built on high ground.

Cape Lookout National Seashore, the most southern islands of the Outer Banks, is composed of Portsmouth Island, the Core Banks and the Shackleford Banks. These last three islands are uninhabited, although tourists may vacation on those islands, but camping and bringing food are necessities since there are no facilities of any kind. During the 1860’s, Portsmouth Village on Portsmouth Island was once inhabited by over eight hundred residents. NSP conducts tours of the town. Commercial ferries will take cars and foot passengers to the island, but cars must be parked upon arrival since there are no roads on Portsmouth Island. The shelling and fishing are great on these remote islands, but beware; the mosquitoes are large and aggressive.

Beach Bum Tip #4
Check the ferry schedule for departure times, which change by season, and arrive early. The ferry lines can be long. Also, keep in mind that locals are accommodated before tourists, which can delay your schedule by a half hour to an hour. Here is a link to the NC Ferry schedule: NC Ferry Schedule 

Beach Bum Tip #5
When four wheel driving on the beach, check the tide charts for that day. Beaches narrow during high tide and can result in loss of a vehicle if drivers aren’t careful.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Q & A Part I

Jim, Pauline, Jordaina and I are practicing for those times in our future when journalists will fight to interview us. As future best-selling authors, we’ve asked ourselves questions focusing on our reading habits and our writing. Our answers demonstrate the differences in our backgrounds, tastes and orientation to literature and writing. As readers or writers, answer these questions and let us know how you answered them.

In contemporary novels you’ve read (not the classics), are there any strong characters you particularly like, compelling you to read more? What method did the author chose to reveal the character?

EBD: One of my favorite characters to emerge in the last two years is a character named Chet, a dog. In Spencer Quinn’s Dog on It, Chet is the main character and narrator of the story. Using Chet as the narrator allows Quinn to explain Chet’s thinking. Quinn doesn’t humanize the dog too much, as much as many books do, and I think this is the key to Quinn’s successful character. Chet frustrates the reader. For example, it takes him time to make logical deductions and sometimes in a humorous way, such as when he is on the verge of making a connection of clues and is distracted by a Slim Jim. Quinn also shows Chet’s positive attributes too, such as his loyalty to his man Bernie, but dogs are loyal so that trait is concordant with a normal dog’s behavior. Making characters too perfect only stereotypes the character or makes them into a cliché.

JMJ: Some people are addicted to television series; I’m a book guy. The character doesn’t have to be realistic or larger-than-life. They need to have interesting problems. They need to have interesting friends. They can’t be stuck in a rut.
For example, I still enjoy Robert B. Parker books. He has several series and they overlap, but even though I’ve read plenty of them, each new one is like a box of popcorn: easy to go down in one quick sitting. After a few dates with Janet Evanovitch’s Stephanie Plum, I got tired of her and her friends. Same with JD Robb’s Eve Dallas and Rourke. I keep reading John Sandford’s Prey Series because Lucas Davenport remains interesting to me, and I’m probably going to stick with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone through the letter Z.

JSR: I loved Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy (of trilogies). Perhaps because Fitz, the main character, didn’t always do or say the right thing. He made decisions that we, as readers, could see were mistakes but possibly the same mistakes we’d have made in his position.
Unlike Jim, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series didn’t grip me at all. I read ‘A is for Alibi’ and really couldn’t get into it. I don’t know if I read it coming off the back of a book I loved but I found it pretty forgettable. The story seemed a little dry to me.

PA: I’ve read most of Lisa Scottoline’s books that feature a female law firm in Philadelphia. The author is a lawyer and lived in Philadelphia. I think that gives the novels a sense of authenticity. I follow Michael Connelly’s Terry McCaleb and Harry Bosch because the characters strike me as complex human beings. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher fascinates me. I doubt whether I could live wandering from place to place with so few possessions but occasionally I feel a yearning for just such a life. I plan to follow Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone to Z.
I also follow the characters in NCIS, particularly Jethro and Ziva. I watch “Cold Case” and Waking the Dead” because the characters can’t rely on DNA and modern technology so they have to use deduction and interview other characters. Patrick Jane in “The Mentalist” fascinates me and I’m interested in the relationship between that character and Teresa Lisbon.

How do you choose novels to read?

JMJ: I have lots of favorite authors. I accept suggestions from people who know me, and my interests. If someone just says, “This is a great book, you should read it,” I usually thank them and go my own way.
I check the NY Times best sellers to see what’s selling. Many of the long-term NY Times best seller authors write quickly and poorly and I have scratched them off my reading list. But I continually find new authors who are good.
I also read the Edgar and Nebula nominees each year.

JSR: I have my favourite authors like most readers and if they have links to authors they like on their website then I’ll usually check them out.
Like Jim, if someone who doesn’t really know me recommends a book I’ll thank them and nod politely. Sometimes I’ll make a mental note to check it out but mostly I won’t. The exception to this rule is someone who makes a good argument for why I should read their recommendation and if their passion for the story shines through what they say (like my bus driver).

PA: I read Edgar and Agatha winners. I read the recommendations of friends, especially those in writing groups and Sisters in Crime. I check reviews in The Boston Globe and New York Times. When I’m ordering a book through online Barnes and Noble, I look at the section headed, people who bought the above book, also bought, etc. I listen to the local librarian and I take note of bestseller lists. If people I know through a writing group or because they are friends publish books, I usually read them.

EBD: I usually get a recommendation. If I like the author, then I read everything they write and try to use the library as much as possible because I read so much. On those occasions when I buy a book, I read the blurb on the jacket, but sometimes I am influenced by the cover. I recently bought a book titled Apologize Apologize, by Elizabeth Kelly, which had a dog on the cover. I thought that it had something to do with a dog as a character. No! There were dogs in the story, but the cover was purely symbolic.

What type of books do you read?

JSR: I go through phases where I’ll read anything and everything I can get my hands on to weeks where I’ll pick a genre and stick with it for a few months. It all depends upon how much spare time I have and where I am with my own writing.

EBD: I like variety, but I have to admit that genre reading and writing have affected my reading of literature. In mystery, we want to capture the reader in the first paragraph and start the plot immediately. Literary writing now seems aimless to me. In Apologize Apologize, a well written book that was a pleasure to read, I groped for a plotline. A third of the way through the book, I concluded it was a fictional biography, but that didn’t spur me to read more. Only the writing saved this book. There really wasn’t a plot and the ending, typical of literary fiction, was anticlimactic, in theory, designed as such so the reader takes what they will from the story, which is a cop out in my opinion. I have a tendency to spell out too much in my writing without letting the reader draw their own conclusions, but the lack of an ending in Apologize Apologize detracted from the “story.”

JMJ: My reading habits are very eclectic. In our personal library we have almost 900 books of fiction and 750 nonfiction books. I say that I seduced my partner, Jan, to the dark side of reading. She used to read lots and lots of “good” fiction until I introduced her to the best genre has to offer. Now she reads more genre than literary. I’ll occasionally dip my fingers into literary as long as there is a story. If it’s all navel gazing, I’m gone.
Although I tend to read more Mystery/Thriller than other genres, I dip into SF and Fantasy. My nonfiction reading has no bounds. Any topic can be interesting if the writing is good. Bad writing and any topic can be stultifying and I’m off to another book.

PA: I read mysteries and thrillers because I like puzzles and action, and protagonists who act as well as think. I also enjoy, because of the characters, books by Jodi Picoult, Toni Morrison, Anita Shreve, and Margaret Atwood. I don’t read romantic fiction. Until now, I haven’t read paranormal fiction but I’m going to try paranormal suspense and mystery.

Let us know how you answered these questions, and watch for Q & A Part II next week, when we'll have more riveting answers for you.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Joys of Public Transport

I was trudging to the bus stop from work yesterday evening, dragging my weary feet as I went (is there anything longer than a day working in retail when there are no customers?). I was about to throw myself on the bus and yell ‘Home, James’ when I noticed the stony faced bus driver was reading. At this point I’d like to clarify the bus was stationary and waiting at the bus station. He was not driving and reading which, admittedly, would be a handy, if dangerous, use of multitasking.

My aching feet/back/shoulders/brain all quickly faded away as I hurried through the business of stating my destination and paying my fare so I could ask him what he was reading. A spark of interest lit his eyes as he lifted the cover to show me ‘Jack and Jill’ by James Patterson. Now, I’d always considered Mr Patterson a little too hardcore for my tastes (I’m hardly a rainbows and unicorns type of gal but I do like a bit of wit and romance mixed in with my murders) which is ridiculous really since I’ve never read any of his books and simply made the assumption on...well, on nothing really.

My once grumpy bus driver quickly transformed into an extremely friendly fellow as he gave me a brief overview of his current reading choice and then told me about another book called ‘The Amber Room’ which he’d recently finished and thoroughly enjoyed (all while a gentleman, whom we both ignored, waited patiently behind me to board the bus – we were talking books, it’s allowed.). He couldn’t remember the name of the author at the time but I googled it as soon as I got home so I wouldn’t forget and it’s by a gentleman called Steve Berry. I fought with my computer for twenty minutes as I manoeuvred my way around my local library’s website (I’ve only just started to use the library again since my bank has demanded my local book shops bar me and it seems the library’s gone all technological when I wasn’t looking) but eventually managed to reserve a copy of each book.

I also reserved a copy of John Grisham’s ‘The Associate’, another author I’d considered a little too hardcore for me until the day before I met my bus driver. I caught an interview with him (John Grisham not the bus driver) on the radio, talking about his new children’s/YA book and he sounded like a really nice, funny man. That, not a flurry of awesome reviews about his latest offering, was what led me to checking out books I had, until then, deemed far too serious or heavy going for recreational journey or lunch break reading, which lately is the only reading time I have.

I wouldn’t normally take a blind recommendation from a stranger (they don’t know me, how will they know what I enjoy reading?) but my bus driver’s total change in demeanour won me over.

I don’t know what it is about books that bridges age/gender/class divides. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t matter whether you’re a bus driver in his mid fifties or an unpublished writer in her .......let’s say twenties and be no more specific, they both have one thing in common. They’re readers, and something about that is equalising. They might have different opinions about the same book based on their different upbringings, but life’s about differences. It’s about listening to someone else’s opinion and seeing a story from their point of view, how their personal experiences changed a character the twenty something unpublished writer thought was strong and independent to the selfish, immature character the bus driver in his mid fifties read.

It’s one of the things that I love about books, any books. You take your personal experiences to the story with you, so when you discuss it with someone else (which I love to do and no doubt bore the pants off people), you’re really talking about so much more. The more you discuss literature with anyone, the more you learn, not just about the words on the page but about the world around you, about life.

I would’ve loved to have seen Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg discussing their views and interpreting the themes in ‘Wind in the Willows’ during the election debates. Now that would’ve been essential viewing. I wonder how the country would’ve voted then.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Opening up the New House

I’ve finished my WIP and put it away for a week or two so I can look at it with fresh eyes. Meanwhile I recall critiques from my writing group and reread DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION by Chris Roerden and MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER by Elizabeth Lyon. So now comes the exciting part.

I’m starting a new story that I hope will end approximately 70,000 words from now. How to begin? It feels a little like the first day in a new house. Can I afford the mortgage? Is there something hostile in the neighborhood I don’t know about? Or, I remember anticipating a first date with someone who looked so gorgeous from a short distance. Will he destroy all the scenarios I’ve been imagining? Or what about bringing home the new baby? It’s wonderful and scary and never exactly what the new parent anticipates.

I can’t bring myself to outline in detail—too restricting. I know the sleuth and the killer. How to make their story arcs intertwine without giving away the solution, that’s the problem. From glimpses of scenes I’ve not yet written, I believe this story needs multiple viewpoints. I developed different suspects for Act I, II, and III. I know where the bodies are buried. That’s not what will drive me forward or flesh out my imaginary world. The suspects and the bodies are like pegs where I can hang a scarf or a raincoat while I get down to work.

The new character I need to explore puts me in front of my laptop. I’m not sure I like her but I know I need to find out more about her. Right now, it seems her story and other characters will have to play secondary roles. She’ll bring me into my home office every day and nag at me while I’m driving or trying to sleep. That’s how I’m starting my story this time.

There have to be a thousand ways to begin and continue. I love to hear how writers reach their goals. I know individuals who need a special pen. Another writer revisits the setting for her story. One writer visits Staples and buys half a dozen
legal size yellow pads. How do you start and continue?


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ryck Neube Interview, Part II

Ryck Neube is one of my (Jim) writing mentors. I met Ryck at the  Cincinnati Writers Project Wednesday night critique group. Ryck has  published novels, novellas, but is best known for his short stories.  Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, for example, has published his work  numerous times.

JMJ: In the first section of my interview with Ryck Neube he introduced himself and we discussed what makes people stand out from the others. In this section Ryck muses on hard work, errors he made, being published (and not) in Asmiov’s and the usefulness of contacts.

RN: I have many novels in the basement turning, thankfully, into compost because I had to learn. I really think Ray Bradbury said it all: to be a writer you write a million words. And the words really don’t matter. It’s a matter of making that commitment to writing that much and at the end of the million words you are that writer.

JMJ: I remember, broadly speaking, someone said to learn anything well took ten years. That’s essentially saying you need to write a novel a year for ten years. If you write more than that, maybe you can cut down from ten years.
RN: There’s an apprenticeship, unless you’re unlucky enough to have your first novel out of college, boom it’s on the best seller list. I think you can be cursed by that.

JMJ: Not going to be my problem.

RN: Well join the club. I wasted the first ten years of my writing because I didn’t pick up the basics. Editors would get the stuff and look at it and say, “My God. He’s got like quarter inch margins.” It’s those little things. Basic formatting is important and I try to drive that through in critique group just because I really do think I wasted the first ten years making boneheaded mistakes like that.

JMJ: You’re a Sci-Fi guy, but I know you read lots of other stuff.

RN: I actually write everything but romances and westerns. Romances for the obvious reasons and westerns because there’s too much research required. If you get the underwear wrong in a western…You know one reason I’m in science fiction is to avoid the research.

JMJ: I invented the world and you can’t tell me I’m wrong because I invented the rules.

RN: Exactly. Although in my one short story, “Quantum Commode Theory,” I actually got a fan letter from a physicist who went, it’s so refreshing for a science fiction writer who actually understands quantum physics – and I haven’t a clue.

JMJ: So how did you respond to that enthralled physicist?

RN: I said, “Thank you,” and sent him an autographed copy.

JMJ: [laughs] Never fess up when you don’t have to.

RN: Never. The real punch line of that story is the editor of Asimov’s added the final line to that story and improved it 100%. It was like eight words he added—100% better and I get the credit! It makes up with being stuck with bad art.

JMJ: You’ve had a bunch of stories published by Asimov and a bunch rejected by them. If you look at the ones that sold and the ones that didn’t sell, any difference, or no clue or they were just smoking different stuff that day?

RN: I have not a clue what will sell and won’t sell. I have sat down and written a glorified fart joke, and it entertained me enough and was short enough that basically I did ten drafts in three days and I sent it off just because it was finished. And it sold – possibly the worst writing I’ve done in my life. Things that I adore, things that make me cry – I impress myself so much – don’t sell. My rule of thumb is, since I cannot identify what will sell and what won’t sell, I do ten drafts and I mail it off. And if it is rejected by everybody in the business, at the end of that two or three years that it takes to get to everybody, I will reread it; and if I’m still in love with the story, I’ll change its title, I’ll change the opening and try it again. A third of my sales come from that.

I’ve had the same editor…I screwed up one time: whenever I get my rejects, one day a week I open them all, take the rejects out, log it in my ledger, put them in envelopes and send them right back out. I screwed up and sent one right back to the same person who bought it. And I’m sitting here going “Last week it’s a reject, this week you’ll take it?”

JMJ: But you cashed the check.

JMJ: Tell me the story about how you’re published in Polish. It involved some contest?

RN: Even stranger than that. I belonged to an organization called the N3F (the National Fantasy Fan Federation) –this was in the days of mimeographed manuscripts. It just so happened they caught fire in Warsaw and had several members. You know I love to correspond. To this day I actually write letters. So I started corresponding with this guy in Warsaw. And it turned out there was a small group of Science Fiction fans in Warsaw – much like the Futurians were in NYC in the 1930s. Basically you’d have a group of science fiction fans, and Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein – everybody at that point who was writing science fiction – would drop in on them. This was the way it was in Warsaw.

He wanted to see one of my novels. I’d just finished writing one of my favorite novels. (I’m currently data entering the bloody thing into my database and – oh God, is it horrible. But that’s twenty years further down the line.) I sent him a Xerox of my novel and the Communist government seized it. That instantly made me fascinating to Derek and his group. So I sent it a second time and it got through and LO! The Berlin Wall falls. Poland is independent. A Swedish firm walks in and says we publish Science Fiction in Sweden and we think there’s a business opportunity in Poland. They’re looking around for someone who knows Polish Science Fiction and boom, it’s my buddy Derek, saying. “I not only know Polish Science fiction writers, I know and American science fiction writer.” So, the month my novel was published in Poland they published two others: Harry Harrison and Isaac Asimov. So here I am with pretty good company.

By the way, the novel is about a future gang of hovercraft thieves in Mt. Adams (a Cincinnati neighborhood). But that’s how it got published in Poland. And New York could care less. I’ve stopped even mentioning it in my cover letter.

JMJ: We'll have the concluding portion of the interview next Wednesday.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why Write Short Stories?

In last week’s blog I analyzed the law of supply and demand and its effect on short story writers’ compensation (or lack thereof). But I write short stories; so there must be a reason other than the money. Actually, I have several reasons.

1. Some stories ideas are not sufficient for a novel.

I write to tell stories to people I have not met and will not meet. I tell stories that are interesting to me. Some of the ideas that interest me do not deserve a whole novel, or even a novella. If I want to tell those stories well, I must perforce write short stories.

2.Improve my craft.

The short story form puts a premium on painting pictures in a minimum number of words. With a short story every word must count. This should also be the case with a 100,000 word novel, and for some authors perhaps it is. For most authors the reality is that within the novel’s worth of words slack is inevitable. A few extra words of dialogue here, a bloated description there and an overwrought metaphor or two—these are not fatal in a novel. With a short story they can be killers. (But not what we mean when we say we are Writers Who Kill!)

Trying to write the perfect short story subjects every facet of the writing craft to the crucible formed by a word limit. An excellent short story only has room for critical dialogue, relentlessly moving the story along. Settings must be concise and meaningful, characterization accomplished with maximum effect using a minimum of description. Seamless weaving of setting, dialogue and characterization must occur to hold the reader’s attention.

I’m not suggesting that winnowing every story to 100 words is practical. To tell well, each story has its own inherent structure and required length. However, the challenge of expressing a story idea in flash fiction forces concentration on each and every word. In an article I wrote for Rough Draft published by the Cincinnati Writers Project I talked about why writing flash fiction is good for a novelist (as I fashion myself to be). I included a comparison of a 250-word story I had written for Alfred Hitchcock's mystery picture contest with a 100-word flash version of the same story.

I am convinced I improve my writing craft through the filter of writing short stories. The improvements show in each subsequent draft of my novels.

3. The ability to experiment.

Let’s say I have taken the typical rookie approach to writing a novel and used a first person POV. In thinking about my second novel I’d like to incorporate limited third person POVs. Or maybe I want to go wild and use a second person present tense voice in the next novel.

Instead of trying out those new (to me) methodologies while writing a 100,000 novel, I can experiment using these techniques in a short story. If I discover I can’t pull it off, all it has cost me is the time and effort of perfecting a 2,000-word story. Far better I should waste my time on 2,000 words than 100,000.

Similarly, if I find I can craft an interesting voice in my experimental format, then I can apply that learning to my novel. Through the short story revision process I will have already learned some important lessons about what works and what doesn’t. I will have confidence I can pull it off.

4. Explore interesting characters.

Sometimes in the course of thinking about or writing a novel I stumble across an interesting character. Occasionally they try to steal the novel, and I need to beat them back with the delete key. I can explore their character, their challenges, their story through a short story or two. Maybe the character is interesting and complex enough to eventually enjoy a novel of their own. Maybe the character raised a side issue that a short story or two will deal with adequately.

I once found I was writing an interesting bit of backstory in the midst of a first draft of a novel I was working on. In draft two I excised the backstory, but kept the idea in a folder of story ideas. The backstory eventually found its true voice as a short story.

5. Receive actual feedback.

Writing novels is a long process with very little feedback along the way. Sure, you can belong to critique groups who provide feedback in 5,000-word increments. You can trade completed manuscripts with critique partners to gain insight into what you have done well and what needs work. Most feedback you get on your novel is the rejection (or acceptance, if the work is good enough) from agents.

The first hurdle with agents is your query letter. Unless it is interesting enough, no agent will read your novel—even if it is a great novel. Maybe you developed a killer query letter and many agents ask you to submit 30 or 50 pages or even the entire manuscript. If it is rejected you will likely receive virtually no useful information. “Not for us,” the form rejection says.

Some short story editors provide feedback on stories they reject. I’m not talking a long critique, but I have had editors indicate things like the character didn’t draw them in; there was insufficient setting for their taste; the ending let them down.

These short comments provide valuable insight on the current status of my writing. The closer I come to acceptance, the more specific the notes on my rejections have become. And back to point (2), the actual feedback from editors helps me improve my writing—all of my writing.

Those are five reasons I write short stories. What about you?

~ Jim

Monday, June 14, 2010

My Setting-Hatteras Island

My novel, Sparkle Days, is set in the Outer Banks (OBX) in North Carolina. Last week, I gave a brief overview of Bodie Island, where my main character’s champagne and sparkling wine store is located. Her investigation takes her south to Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. This week features Hatteras Island, my favorite.

South of Nags Head, Route 12 goes over Bonner Bridge, which was built in 1963 and spans Oregon Inlet. Because of the narrowness of OBX islands, the ocean, during storms, creates and connects islands. Oregon and Hatteras (between Hatteras and Ocracoke) Inlets were created during a fierce hurricane in 1846. The inlet was named after a side-wheel steamer named the Oregon, the first vessel to pass through the new inlet.

The Bonner Bridge needs replacement. At the risk of repeating hearsay, one engineer rated the bridge for safety at one, the lowest, in a rating scale of one hundred. In October 1990, a barge hit the bridge knocking out several spans. Since that time, political warfare has done absolutely nothing to replace the bridge. Those of us who cross Bonner Bridge regularly debate whether to go fast over the bridge in case it falls behind us or to take the slow approach in case spans fall down before we reach them. No matter which approach one takes, everyone holds their breath while driving over the bridge. One of the reasons for the controversy is because of Pea Island.

Once over the bridge, Route 12 traverses Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, which once was an island. Pea Island is a protected area that
environmentalists would like to close to traffic. Proposals for a longer bridge bypassing Pea Island to Rodanthe have been presented. Although more expensive, this is the best solution because it fulfills the objectives of preserving Pea Island’s wildlife sanctuary and building a safer bridge in a more protected area away from the inlet’s turbulent waters. Over wash (in OBX this is considered one constantly used word) from the ocean undermining Route 12 shuts down the road disrupting business, resident and visitor travel. The longer bridge would eliminate the constant cost of maintaining the risky bridge, Route 12 and would protect the wildlife area. (Check: for the best weather information and to check on road closings.)

Rodanthe (Row-danth-ie), Waves and Salvo are the first three towns on Hatteras Island. Rodanthe was not the original name. Native Americans called the area Chicamacomico, which served as the site of the first U. S. Life Saving Station in 1873. The service transformed into the U. S. Coast Guard in 1915. The preserved historic buildings are open for touring.

National seashore areas divide Hatteras Island. This land is owned by the Federal government, whose presence often conflicts with local and regional control. Some areas of the beach on Bodie, Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands are open to beach driving, which is of great convenience to sport fisher(wo)men. The best fishing holes on Hatteras Island are on the Cape and at the inlet beaches south of Hatteras Village, both of which are nearly inaccessible without a motorized vehicle. Most of these beaches recently have been closed due to nesting migratory birds. The Piping Plover, an endangered migratory bird, which has caused beach closure to traffic, has spurred the slogan, “Piping Plover…tastes like chicken.” This sentiment seems redneck, but the negative impact to businesses dependent on fishing give reason to decry the beach closures. Wildlife statistics gathered by the National Park Service are used to support beach closures by groups such as the Audubon Society, yet these same statistics, say the locals, don’t warrant closures. Regardless, the Federal government has closed parts of the beaches to traffic. An unnamed source from NC State University admitted to me that the Piping Plover nests best on the roof of the Food Lion in Avon, the next southern town, a location not counted in the statistics.

Avon mixes businesses, restaurants, and beach houses providing a varied vacation experience. Originally called Kinnakeet, it too started as a life saving station. The off shore area of Avon starts the dangerous Diamond Shoals, which have resulted in over six hundred recorded ship wrecks.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse located on Cape Point, the peninsula stretching into the Atlantic, resides by the town of Buxton. The close proximity of the lighthouse to the ocean resulting from beach erosion necessitated moving the lighthouse. This intricate engineering was accomplished the summer of 1999. The picture to the right shows its current location. The lighthouse and keepers’ cottage are open to the public.

Buxton hosts the East Coast Surfing Championship every September on the north shore of the Cape. Although Buxton has its attractions, the island’s essential services are located in the town as are offices for Dare County. Frisco, the community to the south of Buxton, mainly consists of neighborhoods, filled with rental and resident housing on the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound.

A stretch of National Beach divides Frisco from Hatteras Village, the most southern town on Hatteras Island. Hatteras Village, also known as a drinking town with a fishing problem, is home to the charter fishing fleet. Local ordinances conflict with this silly saying because restaurants are prohibited from serving mixed drinks on Hatteras Island. Patrons may order wine or beer or are allow to BYOB. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel hit Hatteras Island hard creating an inlet just north of Hatteras Village and rendering it an island. The Army Corps of Engineers issued contracts to private contractors to fill the inlet using data obtained from the US Geological Survey. FEMA and the State of North Carolina paid the bill.

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Beach Bum Tip #3
The currents around the shoals cause strong undertows, rough surf and rip currents. Waves normally flow toward the beach. Rip currents flow out to sea. One stretch of water can be normal for swimming, but ten yards away there could be a rip current. Once experienced, you can see rip currents, but for the inexperienced, these currents are deadly and result in many deaths each summer. Caught in a rip current, a swimmer must not panic or fight against the current. Swimming in a parallel or diagonal route towards shore will enable the swimmer to get out of the current and get back to the beach. Most swimmers try to fight the current, resulting in exhaustion and drowning.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Unbelievably Believable Characters

I was chatting to my sister a few days ago (she’s gotten over her ‘F’ word fixation in case any of you were wondering) and she was telling me about going to see ‘Sex and the City 2’. She’d read somewhere that someone had worked out Carrie’s wardrobe would take a salary of in the range of $600,000 per annum to maintain. Why anyone would spend their time calculating this is beyond me but I think they might be related to one of the scientists trying to explain how Santa Clause manages to deliver presents all over the world in a single night.

A slightly odd use of your time but it does raise some interesting questions. For instance, would Carrie and the girls be such a big hit if they dressed according to what they could realistically afford?

I knew a few girls who used to watch the show for fashion tips and ideas as much as the plotlines. They’d take Carrie’s (or the team that styled her) fashion sense as gospel and used to pay ridiculous amounts for outfits or shoes they could barely walk in.

Me? I’m a flip flop type of gal. I’m short. I accept it. I’m not going to wobble precariously around on four inch toothpick heels to try to pretend I’m not.

In books (TV and movies too), we all have to put reality on hold a little and go with the flow. Has anyone else noticed how female characters in so many books wake up and have to do practically nothing to make themselves presentable (which isn’t quite as bad as in the movies when they wake up with a face full of perfect makeup and artfully dishevelled hair – I don’t even look that good after hours of primping!)? Or that the leading man is naturally buff, supposedly without the aid of a gym....actually, I don’t mind that so much.

As a writer, I understand that’s because no one wants to read ‘I showered, brushed my teeth, spent half an hour applying my makeup, blow dried my hair...etc’ because a) it gets in the way of the story and b) the fact I have to do it is enough, why force it on a character too?

Things like that I can accept. I didn’t even really mind when Janet Evanovich’s Ranger grew a few inches somewhere between her first and third book and suddenly became a viable romantic interest for Stephanie. I think it’s necessary to postpone reality a little when reading because really, isn’t that why we’re reading in the first place?

If you pick up a book in the currently popular vampire/shapeshifter Urban Fantasy genre then you’re willingly surrendering reality at the outset because we all know that vampires and shapeshifters don’t really exist (right?). But what about cosy whodunnit’s? When the maniacal samurai sword wielding psychopath, murdering people who have an excess of vowels in their name, is revealed to be the protagonist’s childhood sweetheart/Great Aunt Maude/local mousy librarian? Is that too far out of the realms of possibility for you?

Is it possible? Of course. Is it probable? Not really, but the killer can’t be who you expected all along or you’d whine there was no twist in the tale.

The problem is where to draw the line? For me, this depends on how the author sets up the world of the protagonist initially and how they react in the early dramatic scenes. If Polly the Protagonist trips over a dead plumber in a graveyard in the middle of the night and her response is “Huh. So that’s why he never came to fix my sink.” then anyone from the mousy librarian to the head of the PTA would make a viable murderer. If, on the other hand, Polly screams until she passes out, I’m just not going to buy it when it’s revealed that Uncle Mike, the local ice cream shop owner who loves kids, did it.

The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, if Polly screamed until she passed out, I would find it annoying (I’m heartless, I know) and secondly, her reaction is too close to a real life response in that situation. And in real life I would be seriously disturbed to think Uncle Mike would wield a sword for so inane a reason. Or if the killer turned out to be Polly’s childhood sweetheart, I wouldn’t be able to accept she’d never had an inkling of his swordsmanship tendencies.

Like I said, I’ll happily leave reality at the door and allow myself to be drawn into a well told tale, but for me, you can’t mix realistic human responses and unrealistic murderous situations. I just won’t buy it. Literally. And if I’m honest, I don’t want a realistic human response to murder and mayhem, if I did, I’d watch the news.

Characters in Danger of Extinction

Some instructors in writing workshops have said fictional characters must be larger than life to keep the reader turning pages and buying the next book in a series. Fiction is pretty amazing and has transported me to worlds I’d never thought I’d visit but, in the end, I don’t think anything is larger than life. There are, and always have been, honest to goodness live characters who act heroically, make horrendous sacrifices for worthy and unworthy causes, who keep going despite social or natural adversity, or who commit such heinous crimes that the rest of us shudder to be on the same planet with them. Sometimes, an author captures the essence or the humanity of these characters so the reader has the opportunity to meet them. Many readers are so busy that they don’t converse with anyone beyond their family and workmates. In fiction, they might find themselves eavesdropping on the thoughts and feelings of a character whose life is outside their experience.

I suspect fictional characters that have been boldly drawn by their creators are sometimes called larger than life. Stephanie Plum and the two men in her life come to mind. Is her sex life more exciting or raunchier than in real life? Well, I’m not giving any names, but I don’t think so.

When I read books written by live authors, the characters seem not so much larger than life as part of life, characters whose emotions and thoughts parallel mine. They cope with situations that are removed from the ordinary. After all, not many of us stumble on dead bodies in our back yards or at the office. I want to see these characters succeed in solving a crime. I expect them to persist and not sit around whining about what a shock they’ve received. From that point of view, I can understand a little the popularity of action/adventure. The male hero keeps going until the job’s done. In grad school, while I was obtaining an MA in literature, I had to read many books in which the male character spent pages fine-tuning his psyche and wondering whether society was worth joining.

I was never aware that I was afraid of dogs until I read Stephen King’s Cujo. I’ve stopped petting every strange dog that comes close. I was working the night shift when remote starters for cars became popular. It was dark and I was hurrying to my car in the parking lot when I heard an engine start up. Right away, I was checking for Stephen King’s Christine, the bad car that killed people. Who can forget Carrie, the teenage misfit, who finally got her revenge, so much more satisfying than a teenager who keeps brooding in private? I guess many readers enjoy being frightened but only if the nightmare is resolved by the end of the story.

Some fictional characters are hard to forget. I remember the character’s name better than the author’s. Scarlet O’Hara comes it mind. She was selfish and thoughtless but I always liked her better than the simpering creatures that fit so well into the polite society of the time. I never thought I could like a cannibal until I met Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He’s more interesting than Clarice Sterling and the killer, Buffalo Bill. Hannibal is so sensitive to the emotions and motives of others at the same time as he bites and eats people.

I’m not sure why Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes have remained popular. They’re both smart and they’re on the side of justice. I guess we want those on the side of good to be brighter than those championing evil. Miss Marple appears more human then Holmes and she goes against stereotype .

Tennessee Williams creates characters that don’t succeed and situations that trap them. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley destroys Blanche Dubois but Stanley’s victory is hollow and our feelings about Blanche are ambiguous. In A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie the cat, Brick, her husband, and Big Daddy won’t find fulfillment. They live in a world of lies. The emotions and struggles of the characters make them memorable but, I’m guessing, the world in which they live seems a little remote.

I’ve heard authors describe their characters as their alter egos or as someone who can live a life they can’t because of family and/or professional commitments. Writers talk to their characters and dream about them. They invent histories and personal profiles for them. They are the imaginary friends of childhood with adult motives and desires. Some characters capture the popular emotion and some don’t. I think I’d have to be able to live outside my time to be able to decide why a character captures the popular imagination today, will be more relevant one hundred years from now, or will never rise up out of the printed page.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ryck Neube Interview, Part I

Ryck Neube is one of my (Jim) writing mentors. I met Ryck at the Cincinnati Writers Project Wednesday night critique group. Ryck has published novels, novellas, but is best known for his short stories. Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, for example, has published his work numerous times.

JMJ: You’ve been involved with the Cincinnati Writers Project how long?

RN: Since 1993 and according to my shrink friends it is a classic case of mental illness. I spend an incredible amount of time on it and the rewards are almost nil. So there is no sane reason I do this.

JMJ: And the insane reason is?

RN: A writer by the name of H.P. Lovecraft… After he died he ceased to exist. But in the sixties people he’d been involved with helping along as fellow writers…people like Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber…they went, “We wouldn’t be writers if he hadn’t helped us.” They revived his career. A guy in Texas bought his literary estate for $800 and in the seventies Lovecraft fiction was earning a $1 million a year…. So, I am counting on – if my noncareer never takes off – that thirty years down the line some of these people from the writers group of CWP in general will be going, “You know, we owe Neube. Now that I’m the new Stephen King; now that I’m the new John Irving, I can resurrect this guy.”

JMJ: So it’s all about you then, it’s nothing about them.

RN: Exactly. I like to think the universe revolves around me. It’s such a small universe and I’m such a big person. It’s either that or the shrinks are right and it’s just mental illness.

JMJ: So that explains how long and why you stayed—because you’re a sick puppy.

RN: Exactly.

JMJ: I remember you saying that some people came to the critique group and fairly early on you knew they were going to do something, and there were other people that it would have been a kindness if you could have whispered in their ear that they should be doing something else. But we can’t quite do that because we’re willing to let people fail by themselves.

RN: And you never know. Possibly one of the worst writers I’ve ever known signed a $200,000 contract with Simon & Schuster. Makes my brain ache sometimes. But some people, like Corson Hirshfeld, the moment he came in…you could tell his work wasn’t good, but he was going that extra level.

JMJ: What is it you see in those people that clearly makes them different from the rest?

RN: It’s one part imagination and another part technique – and I’m not saying that the technique has to be good – but you can read in their words that they’re going that extra level. Even if they’re failing, they’re taking that big swing. One of the things I’ve noticed about people who write more for therapeutic reasons or for ego reasons is they don’t take chances. It’s all just pat.

JMJ: One of the things I said in a recent blog about voice was that there are people who you pick up their books and you don’t have to get very far into it and you know exactly who they are.

RN: Exactly. You can find one page and you know.

JMJ: I thought they were all people who found their true selves and didn’t really care about the rest of the world relative to their sound. Now, they did it in the context of the society and time they were in. They took the risk of doing what was unique to them and applied it to the current thing and they stretched the current thing. What you’re saying is that’s it’s similar to the taking risk you were talking about.

RN: It’s the same. I think there’s risk involved in getting your own voice. One of the big stylists of Science Fiction, Norman Spinrad, published scores of books and can’t be published now. His last novel, he shopped it everywhere and they said “No, you’re not going to sell enough.” So sometimes, having your unique voice can get in the way. Jack Kerley is a good example of that. A novel he tried to sell, The Gumbo King – a lovely voice; best thing he’s ever written. They didn’t want that. They wanted his buddy cop novel. And I’m sitting here saying Gumbo King is so many times better, but is better safer? Publishers these days are all about the lottery ticket.

JMJ: Have you had any surprises? Just no way in hell, but they were just really early on in their career that they didn’t have a clue and once they got a little bit of a clue it was like – ah ha!

RN: One of my pleasant surprises was Pax Riddle. He was laid off and had one year of benefits so he said, “I’m writing the novel I always wanted to write.” It was ponderous. And worse than ponderous, it was based on one of his great-great-great grandmas. It was a western. It moved like a snail. Quite frankly I couldn’t imagine it being sold. He listened. He learned.

He dumped the first 50,000 words of his novel. As a result of going through group, he ditched the first part and did some big time rewriting. He sold it to, I think, Tor. That was a real pleasant surprise because he was certainly deserving. He put the work in. I’ve never seen a harder working man. I’m not sure I’m capable of dumping 50,000 words. That’s quite the ego snapper.

JMJ: Stop by next week for part two of my interview with Ryck.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Supply, Demand and the Short Story

From time to time the “ain’t it awful” crowd at one of the various writing groups I belong to goes on a tear about the unfairness of what magazines (print and online) pay for short stories. Duotrope lists professional markets as those paying five cents a word or more for short stories. A 2,000-word story under that scale earns at least $100.

Duotrope lists 107 short story markets that at least sometimes pay pro rates. Five of those (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Boy’s Life, Cicada, Cricket and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine) accept Mystery/Crime stories. Science Fiction has 31 markets listed. General wins with 68, and a good story that happens to have a mystery involved could score in many of those markets.

Q: Why aren’t there more, and why haven’t rates increased at the same pace as inflation?

A: Supply and Demand.

1. To pay authors money, the print or online magazine must make money, which means people must be willing to pay to read, or advertisers must pay the freight. The internet has done a wonderful job of convincing people that much information in life should be available for free. Why pay for Encyclopedia Britannica when you can have Wikipedia for free? The quality may not be the same, but if all you need is a general answer, Wikipedia works.

To receive your free content, maybe you have to put up with a few advertisements and give up a bit of privacy as providers keep track of your clicks around the web. Surely there is no reason to pay for anything out-of-pocket.

Newspapers took the route of providing free content on the web; many magazines are following this business model. Some, however, like the Wall Street Journal are trying to reclaim paying customers. We’ll see how that goes. My sense is they are trying to close the barn door after the horse has escaped to the meadow of clover.

2. The number of authors willing to give their short stories to anyone willing to publish them is astronomical. Some write short stories for pleasure and are delighted if anyone reads them. Others believe that adding writing credits to their résumé will enhance finding an agent for their novel, from which they hope to make the “big” bucks. As far as I can tell, the overall trend of authors willing to sell their work for much less than minimum wage shows no signs of abating.

3. If Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and their peers already get more quality submissions than they can accept, why should they increase what they pay authors? No reason I can see. Only if the supply decreased below the level they need to sustain the quality of their magazine would they need to increase their payments.

So the demand from readers for quality short stories for which they are willing to pay money is low. The supply of short stories, even really good ones, is high. Classic economics says the price paid for short stories should stay low.

Will e-Readers change either supply or demand? They won’t diminish supply, and we are already at such a large surfeit that people are giving their work away, so I don’t expect any major changes from the supply side of the equation.

Perhaps a ray of hope exists for increasing demand. For some time, lots of people have been willing to pay to download songs at $.99 a pop. Perhaps authors can start charging for their stories. At $.25 a pop, you would only need 400 readers to match the $100 pro fee for a 2,000-word story. In the electronic store, potential readers could find your older stories and buy those too. At checkout the store can suggest that if you like this story by (say) Ed Hoch, you might like this other one by (in my dreams) James Montgomery Jackson – and heck, it’s only a quarter; maybe you’ll give it a try. Or maybe not, we’ll see.

For now, unless you are or become famous (and it’s unlikely short stories alone are going to provide that fame) make sure you have well-grounded reasons for writing short stories. For most of us, money won’t make it worthwhile.

~ Jim