Don’t Force It (Encore)

For the past 30-odd years I’ve had a sweet story percolating in my brain and taking up space on several different hard drives. I’m fairly certain it’s a young adult tale, but…  It’s the “fairly” part of the equation that keeps biting me on the posterior. Why, for cryin’ out loud, have I not been able to get this story written?

Because I’m not sure where the damned thing is going!

I’ve written over 20,000 words in at least four different attempts to bring this story to life. If nothing else, I expected to at least move the freaking needle in the right direction, but the same problem kept rearing its hideous head: I’m trying to force my sweet little YA story into something else, something bigger, somewhere it just doesn’t belong. But since I don’t have a concrete ending in mind–despite my fascination with and love for the characters–I keep trying to smush them into a form that isn’t right for them.

Twice now, I’ve written them out of novels I’ve gone on to finish (neither of which was aimed at the YA market). Now, believe it or not, it’s happened again. I saw the light in a novel I’ve been fiddling with since last summer. It won’t work with my sweet, little cadre of YA players, not even as a subplot. But that’s fine for the time being, my hands are no longer tied, and I can go on with the real story–the one I should have started working on in the first place.

I’ll hang on to what I wrote involving those YA players, and someday, hopefully, I’ll come back to them with an ending in mind. So, what does this have to do with the rest of the world’s writing population? Is there a chance I’m the only one who’s faced this dilemma? I doubt it.

Stories come in different sizes and shapes, and forcing one type to fit the mold of another just doesn’t work. You might finish the story; you might even find someone to buy it, but it won’t be as good as it could have been if you’d been true to it from the beginning.

Forced fits never look good. Imagine a size 20 butt in a size 8 tracksuit–or ten pounds of suet in a five-pound bag–same difference. Whether we’re talking suits or sacks, something’s gonna blow at any moment, and you don’t want to be near it when it does.

There are plenty of stories waiting to be told. Some of them are bound to be good! Be content with letting a story evolve into its own comfortable size and shape, at least in the first draft. You can pinch, pull, poke and prune it later.

That, I’m told, is what real writers do.

–Josh

 

 

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OLLI Classes Go Online

To absolutely no one’s surprise, a lot of people have been told to work from home, or just stay at home. Hopefully, this crazy virus won’t restrict our lives too much longer, but in the meantime, we all have to adjust. Kennesaw State’s branch of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is no exception, and they’ve made some major changes to accommodate folks who are now more or less forced to stay at home. They’re putting as many of their classes online as possible. That includes two of mine, both of which are scheduled to begin on Wednesday, April 15.

If you live in the Atlanta area, and you’re interested in either writing or publishing, one of my courses might just be what you’re looking for. The first is on novel-writing, the second is on independent publishing. Click on the class names to see the catalog listings. Under normal circumstances, OLLI would charge $119 for each class, but for this term, they’re offering a 20% discount. That’s a pretty nifty deal. (Full disclosure: the novel-writing class has a required textbook, The Naked Novelist! which sells for $15 on Amazon in paperback, or in ebook format for $5. I make autographed copies available in class for ten bucks.)

Since I’ve not met many of you in person, I don’t really know how to portray to you the kind of teacher I am. There is, however, a short video of me which the good folks at Kennesaw State University recorded back in June 2017. They asked me to talk about writing, and they asked me to keep it short. Oy. What an assignment! You can check it out right here.  (Be sure to turn your volume up.)

I’m sorry to cut this so short, but I’ve got to go and prepare my notes. I’m new at online learning, too!

Oh, and before I wrap this up, I want to let you know it appears that cover option #4, shown here, garnered the most votes, both from this blog site and an appearance on Facebook. My thanks go to all of you for your input. A final decision hasn’t been made, as I’m waiting on comments from a marketing associate, but I hope to release the book very soon. Once again, thank you, everyone!

Stay well.

–Josh

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Your Help Is Needed!

I’m in a quandary, and I’d like for my readers to lend me a hand, or a nod, or, I don’t know, maybe just a blink. Give me some indication of which of the following four cover options works best for you. Assume you don’t know anything about the book, especially if you were one of my First Readers.

Pretend you’re a member of a garden club, and you’re looking for something fun to read while we fritter away the hours waiting for the Wuhan pandemic to wind down. Which of these covers would be more likely to pull you in?

And lest you waste time trying to discern massive differences between the first two and the last two, the ONLY change in #3 and #4 is the color green used in the book title.

Kindly check out all four covers and tell me in the comments section below about which one you think does the best job. Please know that I deeply appreciate your input!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                  Cover 1                            Cover 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

             Cover 3                                   Cover 4

Now, kindly go vote below.

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Thanks for your help.

–Josh

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Non Voyage!

Oh, what the hell, it’s only my bucket list trip. Putting it off for a few months shouldn’t be that big a deal, right?

Hm.

Wrong. Putting off everything turns out to be a HUGE deal. But only because half the planet is trying to do pretty much the same thing.

I have strong opinions on the covid-19 panic that’s swept through the world, but my views have nothing to do with what other folks are doing. I hadn’t planned to make any changes to our travel plans. We were locked and loaded, ready to go. I couldn’t wait to return to Australia and then embark on my first visit to New Zealand. But as we neared our departure date, the cruise line contacted us to advise that one of our excursions had been canceled.  The next day they nixed another one. That left us with three and the mounting suspicion that the rest would be wiped out by the time we boarded the ship.

Since we wouldn’t be spending two weeks on land in New Zealand, our only opportunities to experience the country first-hand consisted of excursions. Viewing them in the distance from the deck of the ship was clearly not what we intended. We had to make a change.

Oy.

Our first call was to Delta Air Lines. Since their lines were choked to the gills, we opted for a call-back and were told we were in for a good 4-hour wait. We got that promise at about the start of Adult Beverage Hour. We figured we’d hear back around 9 PM. Midnight rolled around, and the only calls we’d received were from scammers. (Par for the course.) So we went to bed.

The phone rang at 4 AM the following morning. Though tempted to ignore it, I feared it might be my only chance to talk to a human being since my efforts to make changes online had been mechanically rebuffed. Talking to an agent was the only solution. And, bless her heart, the agent on the line at 4 AM did get our flights pushed back to November.

Meanwhile, we were waiting to hear from the travel agent who booked our cruise. Phone calls were futile, but we got through via email, and it appears our requested change has been made. It’ll be another two weeks before we get confirmation from the cruise line. Am I nervous? Who, me?

Oh, hell yes!

But there’s more, and trust me when I say it’s far worse than waiting in line at the DMV.

We’ve got three hotel reservations and a flight between Sydney and Aukland to reschedule. We used travel points with Bank of America for one of the hotels and the flight. We turned to Travelocity for the two nights in Sydney. And, since we booked everything through those agencies, none of the hotels or the airline can handle any changes. It all must be done by the agencies we used to book them.

Guess who can’t be reached?

The results from seven phone calls to Bank of America’s travel line: twelve hours of waiting on hold while forced to listen to Kenny G (which qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment) only to have all seven calls summarily disconnected. After repeated phone failures, we took a trip to the local Bank of America branch. A one-hour visit with an employee who tried her best to help yielded a couple names, but no real-time solutions. Our best bet is to contest the charges on our account. <shrug>

One has to wonder why there’s such a great raging fuss being made over this new flu flavor. Ten years ago, the swine flu raced across the planet, and the World Health Organization also declared it a pandemic. According to the Center for Disease Control, the swine flu sickened 55 million Americans, hospitalized 257,000, and killed 11,690. But during that entire time, nothing was shut down–sports continued to be played, schools and stores stayed open, meetings weren’t canceled, cruise ships sailed as scheduled. In short, life went on as if getting the flu was a possibility, not an automatic death sentence.

I suspect this whole coronavirus issue has been blown totally out of proportion, and I lay the blame squarely on our mass media. It used to be that fear sold newspapers, but that job appears to have been turned over to radio, television, and the internet. I hope they all remember what happened to the little lad who cried, “Wolf!” one too many times.

–Josh

Posted in travel, Writing | 23 Comments

I’m in need of a bad guy….

Here I am, ready to start work on a new novel, and I’m stuck before I start. I have a wonderful protagonist, a strong female, about whom I’ve already written several scenes. This gal, Andi, could be the best character I’ve ever conjured. Best of all, I’m taking her along with my bride on my Number One Bucket List Trip. We leave very soon for New Zealand and will be gone for three weeks. I seriously doubt I’ll be posting anything on this blog until we return. [Note to potential intruders: we have both a well-armed housesitter and a vicious canine to protect the premises in our absence.] 

Story-wise, I’ve already got two great things–a powerful character and the potential for a fabulous setting. I even know why my wonderful marine-trained protagonist is going to the lands Down Under. Now I need to figure out who or what needs to get in her way.

What I don’t have, and what I desperately need, is a bad guy, an antagonist who continually gets in the way of my lovely protagonist, who builds a stumbling block for my gal in his on-going efforts to get what he wants.

I could dredge up something corny like the charming fellow here, but I’d be hard-pressed to give him the sort of background that would make him either interesting or believable. In the world of commercial fiction, there are a few things one has to do to create a really good bad guy. Chief among these is the bad guy’s belief that he or she isn’t really bad. There are reasons for their behavior that seem utterly rational, at least to them. I’m not sure the guy in the photo is capable of that. The sledgehammer tends to emphasize that particular shortcoming. Besides, I suspect Andi could disarm this yahoo in nothing flat. (Yeah, she’s that good!)

Another option, of course, would be to introduce something from nature. But, while Australia seems to have cornered the market on deadly creatures, New Zealand is relatively free of them. The only real contender I could find is a tiny spider that appears to be a close relative of the North American Black Widow. It’s called a katipo. This nasty bit of work bears a jagged red racing stripe down its back, and just looking at it sends a stripe of something else down my own back. My protagonist would likely be far less ruffled than I and would probably just squish the little beastie. Personally, I’d rather see it fed into a shredder, but either way, it wouldn’t qualify as a great villain. A horde of them operating as a team might qualify, but then I’d be writing science fiction, and I’m not terribly good at that.

Another option from nature might be some kind of traumatic geological event. The recent and tragic eruption of a volcano on White Island in New Zealand is a great example. And while the two main islands of this wonderful country seem to have more than their fair share of volcanos, none of them are in the neighborhood I have in mind for Andi’s adventures.

So, what does that leave for me in terms of villains? A pack of domestic animals, perhaps? Angry sheep?

Evidence of the native Maori culture is everywhere in New Zealand, and the country’s history is replete with conflicts between the native people and the Europeans who moved to and ultimately dominated their homeland. The so-called Age of Exploration had many of the same devastating effects on these “discovered” lands as it did in the Western Hemisphere. If Andi’s story were set amid the 19th century, there would be plenty of human villains to work into her tale. But hers is a contemporary story.

I’m thinking I might just use a type of villain any of us is likely to encounter at almost any moment. These particular “do-no-gooders” come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and ethnicities, and while they used to be most closely associated with government centers, they’ve now spread virtually everywhere. I’m speaking, of course, about bureaucrats, hired naysayers who enforce rules they make up by themselves for everyone else. One or more of them could prove to be poor Andi’s worst nightmare.

–Josh

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Taxes, Time, and Toil

Rather than go into dreadful, boring detail, suffice it to say I’ve been working on my taxes. This has caused me to drift away from my normal, pleasant, and non-confrontational personality to one of anger, distrust, and denial. It makes me a less than a happy person. When it’s tax time, even my dog ceases to like me.

Pair that onerous task with the job of finishing a new novel and perhaps you’ll understand why this week’s blog post will be profoundly thin.

While I’m not at all happy about life on the tax front, life on the fiction front is progressing nicely. When I can tear myself away from the joys of slogging through 1040 worksheets and a forest of federal forms, I’m waiting for my First Readers–amazingly gifted and generous folk–to finish reviewing the new book. Since I can’t begin the final edit until all the feedback is in, I’ve turned my attention to the cover.

Doing cover mock-ups can be both time-consuming and frustrating. It’s important to provide a visual that neatly suggests what the story is about without giving away too much. Else, why bother to read the book? The cover must be compelling, catchy, and original. By the same token, readers committed to a particular genre expect covers to have a certain sameness. They want to be assured that what they’ll read is what they want. Think space ships for the Sci-Fi crowd and hunky males for the bodice-ripper fans.

But how does one appeal to a target audience that doesn’t fit into any of the traditional categories? In my case, the target market consists of garden club members, who are mostly female and have grandkids.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve got so far. This cover may never see the light of day, but it’ll give you an idea of what’s in my head for the new book. Garden Clubbed is a humorous tale that puts a whole new spin on an old and venerable tradition. Or so I hope. We’ll have to wait and see how the First Readers react.

I’d love to get your reactions to this cover idea. Please feel free to share your thoughts via the comment section.

–Josh

 

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Villains, part two (Encore)

This is the second installment of Villains, Virgins and Vigilantes.

Just How Mean Is Mean Enough?

Okay, she's a mean girl, but you can do so much better!

Okay, she’s a mean girl, but you can do so much better!

Remember, we’re still working on the first “V” in our Villains, Virgins, and Vigilantes hierarchy. Presumably, you have a working version of your villain, whom I’ve been referring to as your Snidely.

Unlike your bad guy’s namesake, your Snidely needs to be a believable character. That means clichés shouldn’t be used to describe him (or her, or it, for that matter). So let’s proceed on the assumption that all such one-dimensional crap is off the character-building table.

So, where do we begin? I suggest examining the genre your story is in as a first step. If you’re writing fiction for an audience of 8- to 10-year-olds, your Snidely might actually need to be more like the guy Dudley Do-right dealt with. fantasy monsterBut if you’re hoping to catch the eye of an adult, epic fantasy-loving audience, you can make him far more sinister. You can, in fact, pull out all the rhetorical stops. (No one who reads fantasy really expects the bad guys to be terribly realistic. Fantasy involves magic, right? So give your creepster an extra head or two and have him/it feed on infants. <shrug>)

The monsters in your non-magical stories, which means those fitting into most of the other genres I can think of, probably ought to be more grounded in the real world. Making such evil folk believable will also make them more frightening. One might, after all, bump into them at the grocery store, the filling station, or the local head shop (not to be confused with a “beauty” parlor).

One of the cherished mantras of fiction writing is “be mean to your heroes.” I heartily endorse this philosophy. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to start planning all the vile, nasty things your Snidely will do to your Dudleys and your Nells before you begin your epic. Plan to hurt them early, and often, to paraphrase the ballot box stuffer’s creed.

Killing them might be a little extreme unless you’ve got plenty of spare virgins and vigilantes to take up the slack, story-wise. The trick, I fervently believe, is to be mean creatively.

Face it, any bad guy can tie a damsel to the tracks, or put a ticking time bomb under the hood of a hero’s car. And if you’re hoping to make your readers yawn, that’ll likely do the job. But most readers would prefer to see something new, and hopefully, different. Here are a few possibilities to which I’ve given almost no thought:

Train and cement truck* Drop a cement truck on your hero, or better yet, a freight train.

* Finagle some black-ops government agency to target your virgin.

* Instead of hiring some loser to kidnap your cutie, enlist a whole biker gang.

* Give your bully some sort of immunity before he pulps your hero.

Yes, I know it might be tricky to pull any of these off, and doing so will likely make your book longer, to say nothing of being more interesting, but it’ll also require that you really think through the process. “Hm. How could I get a freight train to fall on my champion?”

Even more important than “how” your villain hurts your hero, is “why.” All too often we see bad guys who are one or two genes shy of being declared bonobos. Yes, there’s a place for knuckle draggers, but they shouldn’t be in charge of anything. Villains need to have enough on the ball to concoct reasons for the havoc they create. It’s not good enough to simply be “bad” (or “mean” or “evil”).

Think back to those dreadful “Home Alone” movies. Of course, such stories are meant as “family” fare, so the plotting can’t be intense. But the bad guys in those films are way beyond inept. They’re so unrelentingly stupid, the only anxiety they might engender is self-inflicted — “Hey, Harry! Know how to keep a dumbass in suspense?”

Your villain must never be stupid, no matter how primal his reasons are for doing vile things to your virgin.

"Relax, General. I'm going to kick your ass for your own good. And that of the country, too, of course."

“Relax, General. I’m going to kick your ass for your own good. And that of the country, too, of course.”

All the usual emotional causes are fair game: jealousy, fear, revenge, etc. But wouldn’t it be fun to have your bad guy do despicable things for noble reasons? Patriotism leaps to mind, but that’s because it’s been done a good deal already, especially if the villain works for some acronymically suitable agency of the federal government: FBI, NSA, EIEIO.

Likewise, religious rationales have become passé, whether the faith being hijacked is Christian, Moslem, or Zoroastrian. It doesn’t much matter anymore. It’s been done. Too much, in fact.

So keep pushing! How ’bout inventing an NGO (non-governmental organization) you can use for motivation? Let’s say your villain is head of the Clean Water for Everyone Coalition, and your pretty, innocent young thing just inherited a bazillion shares of Dreadful Energy, Inc. She’s been appointed CEO by yet another evil-doer who plans to manipulate her into poisoning most of the Third World.

Hm. That actually has some potential….

old-person-confusedA plot twist we see more and more lately is the one in which the bad guy isn’t really “bad,” he’s just been put in an impossible situation — by someone even worse — who’s forcing him to do harm to your good guy. In which case, your original villain is really just another victim.

So, what motivates the “really” bad guy to make his victim look mean while ultimately hurting your hero?

Oy. Does your head hurt, too?

Of course, that’s just one of the scenarios you’ll need to work out. Another is what happens if your virginal victim can’t complete some urgent task of her own? This sets up the classic crash of competing interests that makes for fun fiction. And yes, it’s harder to write, but that’s the sort of dues payment you’ll have to make in order to achieve success.

Which leaves us where, exactly?

Here’s my shortlist of requirements for a “successful” villain (the masculine pronoun is merely for convenience; feel free to spawn bad girls, too):

* He must not be dumb, but he needn’t be a genius.

* He must have some motivation. He can’t be bad simply because the library’s closed, and he has nothing else to do. (Explaining how that might be true would give you a motivation!)

* He must be willing to do something different (to entertain your audience).

* He must have positive characteristics, in his own mind if nowhere else.

* His evil acts should stay within the limits of your chosen genre.

When working out these essentials, it wouldn’t hurt to keep a technique in mind that I first heard from Kris Rusch and Dean Smith: levels of thinking.

DigSimply put, the first ideas that pop into your head are likely to be the same ones every other writer will have. They constitute the 1st level. You need to dig deeper.

2nd level ideas are a little harder to come by, and they’re usually better. Unfortunately, they’ve been hatched often enough by other writers that editors and agents will have either seen them frequently or would have come up with them on their own.

This means you need to dig down to the 3rd level. And now you’ve entered the realm of the really creative. These are the ideas that typically come to you during adult beverage hour (for those who partake), or that wake you in the middle of the night, or hit you betwixt the eyes while you’re driving home from a late-night poker game (or babysitting for the grandkids). These are the ideas that make readers sit up straight, shake their heads, and admit they never saw “it” coming, whatever “it” might be.

So, there you have my collected wisdom on developing villains.

Next up: Virgins Are People, too!

–Josh

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