Do your characters act like people? (Encore)

Wait–You mean my human characters?

It may seem like a stupid question, but it’s not. In the process of working our way out of caves and into cars, we have developed certain patterns of behavior which are common to all races and nationalities. The pattern I find significant, as it relates to storytelling, is how we respond to crisis. We’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and we do it the same way, over and over.two robots together

So, again, are your characters — fiction or non-fiction — acting like real people?

Need more detail? Imagine you’ve just been in an  accident, or you’ve received unexpected news (good or bad), or something else of significance has occurred. What happens next?

Here’s where the behavior pattern kicks in. It involves four steps which I first learned about in a blog by bestselling author Jim Butcher. They are:

  • An emotional reaction to what just happened, followed by,
  • A review and evaluation of what just happened, followed by,
  • The anticipation of a response to what just happened, followed by,
  • A choice based on the foregoing.

That may look like a heap of stuff, but if taken a step at a time, it will feel pretty familiar. Why? Because this is how almost every member of our species reacts! For example:

Imagine you’re a male college student, and you’ve just learned that a female friend is pregnant with your child. (Change the background circumstances to see how it works with other dynamics in play.)Dollarphotoclub_63207821_text

1) Your first reaction is emotional. “I’m going to be a daddy!” Or, if this doesn’t come as entirely happy news: “I’m going to be a daddy?” Or, “Wait–are you sure?”

2) Automatically, your mind will replay events leading upDollarphotoclub_63207822_text to this revelation, and you’ll try to evaluate your situation and maybe answer some of the questions you just asked. “I’m pretty sure I was in Pago Pago at the time,” or “You have me confused with my roommate,” or “Finally–I have a purpose in life!” Whatever.

Dollarphotoclub_58282674_text3) After evaluating the situation, you’ll start figuring out how to respond, in other words, you anticipate what to do next. It could be a marriage proposal, or a name change coupled with a relocation to someplace far, far away. It might even be a short, probably ugly chat with your current girlfriend. (See note about background circumstances above.)Dollarphotoclub_58594809_text

4) Finally, you’ll make a choice about what to do, and this translates into action.

This works equally well for fiction or non-fiction. The thing to keep in mind is the order shown here–it’s always the same. Some phases may be more involved than others, and much depends on the severity of the crisis. But these are the steps we always go through, and we always go through them in this order.

If the characters in your memoir or novel don’t follow this pattern, they’re just not acting like real people. [Please note: I have no formal training in psychology or the study of human behavior, but I know what rings true. And this does. How it relates to sociopaths and/or psychopaths is fodder for another discussion.]


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On the topic of sex scenes… (Encore)

If you’re anything like me–human, mostly–and you’ve spent any time at the beach, you’re probably already aware that the ratio of truly beautiful people to the rest of us is, well, pretty damned small. And I mean “beautiful” in the most rudimentary sense: exterior beauty. I’m referring to perfect hair, a perfect smile, a perfect body–the works.

Ilustracion con una pareja de jovenesSo why in the world do we insist on writing about fantastically gorgeous people? Who are we kidding? Not every hero needs to be six foot four, weigh 200 pounds, and have a 30-inch waist. Seriously. I could count the number of guys I know who are built like that on one hand. Prob’ly one finger.

Ditto for the ladies. I’m pretty sure I married the last perfect gal of my generation, and thank God she still tolerates my presence. But on our last beach trip, I had my worst fears confirmed. Hang on to your hats, people, I have really bad news: Most of us just ain’t all that hot.

But you sure couldn’t tell that by what we write. According to much of the fiction I’ve seen lately, women are universally slender, often petite, with flowing locks, and azure eyes–usually limpid ones, whatever in hell that means. The guys all seem to have lantern jaws and slab upon slab of lean muscle. And when one of those guys climbs into bed with one of those gals… content  Well, let’s just say miracles happen. Cue fireworks!

Yes, yes, I know we’re writing fiction, and a desirable element of fiction is fantasy. And certainly, the sex I’ve been reading about is nothing short of fantastic. Who knew that tab A could be inserted into slot B with such spectacular results? Every time. No matter what–or where. Flawless execution, perfect timing, mutual satisfaction, no remorse, and almost never any procreation.

I’d say “fantasy” pretty much covers all that.

Please don’t get the impression I’m some sorta sex scene Scrooge. I’ve written my share of randy romps that logic dictates are utter nonsense. And I’ve been told folks generally liked ’em. Which is nice.

cialissilhouettes2But once in a while, I’d like to read a bedroom scene that contains something a little more “real.” Let’s face it, human bodies weren’t designed to operate in complete silence, and I’m not talking about someone screaming (moaning, gasping, grunting, or otherwise fulminating) the classic, “Oh God, oh God, oh God!” line.

Sometimes people actually laugh. I’m not kidding. Really–they do! And why not? They’re supposed to be having a good time. Heavy breathing is fine, but why couldn’t someone burst out in song? Okay, maybe not the “Hallelujah Chorus or “Row Row Row Your Boat,” but something melodic in between might be nice.

Or maybe, just once in a while, the fireworks don’t happen. I’m guessing that outcome is a lot more common than folks admit. And if I’m wrong, who’s paying for all those Viagra and Cialis commercials?

In my classes, I often use the word verisimilitude. It means the appearance of being true or real. Very handy word, despite being a mouthful and hard to spell, even when sober. But it’s of critical importance when writing fiction. One must focus on creating the “appearance” of reality. How does that apply to sex scenes?

I suspect the answer lies somewhere between the perfection we all wish we had and whatever it is we actually have. A little of this, a little of that, and before you know it, you’ve got… a casserole! And you know what, casseroles can be pretty darned good. Especially the spicy ones.


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It’s not *supposed* to be easy! (Encore)

Writing is easy. Writing well is hard. It takes concentration, discipline, and attention to detail. More than anything else, it takes time. It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is fiction or non-fiction, feature or fantasy. Anything that can be written has almost certainly been written poorly. But not everything that can be written has been written well. And there’s the challenge.technical

Technical writing is often cited as the most tedious of all written work, yet I’ve done software documentation that was actually quite readable. At some hideous moment in the darkest annals of technical writing history, someone — probably an overpaid, middle management type — decided that “serious” and “professional” were synonymous with “boring.” Engineers and software designers, it was decreed, must not be allowed to add humor, sarcasm, or even rhyming words to their written work lest it be perceived as something less than the scientific version of holy writ. What utter crap. If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing well.

One might argue that scientific types, engineering types and others of a serious and/or scholarly mindset, are rarely capable of writing anything in a lighthearted manner. But that’s absurd. The ability to think clearly and rationally doesn’t preclude the ability Elderly man posing on white backgroundto see the humor in everyday life, or anything else. Why must the difficulty of the subject matter relieve the person writing about it to slack off? Why can’t the writing be as worthy as the topic?

Good writing doesn’t have to be humorous, of course, but it ought to be understandable at the very least. And it must be readable. Great hoary blocks of unrelieved text composed of never-ending sentences, convoluted grammar, and passive constructs shouldn’t ever be the goal. At its very heart, good writing is communicative. If it fails at that, what’s the point?

Scholarly work needn’t be so attentive to the subject that no attention is paid to the literaturefundamental reason for the written description. Being obtuse doesn’t make something profound. It only makes it a greater chore to wade through than it has to be. A writer’s primary job is to connect with readers. It applies to memoir writing, fiction writing, speech writing, and all the other kinds of writing you can think of!

I’ve read humorous obituaries. I hope my own will make readers smile, even if I have to write it myself, which, now that I think of it, isn’t a bad idea. I have no doubt that doing so will require a significant amount of effort. I won’t be able to just sit down and dash off something that’ll do the job. It’ll take concentration, discipline, and attention to detail. It’ll also take time.

But I’m okay with that. Good writing is worth it.


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It’s time to write a novel. Let me help you do it!

Many of us have found ourselves with extra time on our hands, thanks to the COVID-19/Corona/Wuhan virus. I don’t know how you spent your time, but I managed to crank out two novels, teach classes on writing and publishing, and edit three books for other writers.

So, yeah, I’m pretty pleased with myself. But I’m not simply bragging. The classes made me realize I have an opportunity to reach and teach a lot more people. My online classes this past spring went very well. But, when I mentioned them on this blog, it somehow hadn’t dawned on me that anyone with access to the Internet can sign up and join in. Duh!

Where you live doesn’t matter as long as you can make yourself available at 10 AM (EDT) on eight consecutive Wednesdays beginning Aug. 5th. This time I’m focusing solely on novel-writing. I’ll do one class, but with as many students as the system can handle.

Interested? Isn’t it time you did something about that book you’ve always wanted to write? Here’s your chance! You’re going to be stuck inside to avoid catching the stupid virus anyway. Why not make use of that time? And besides, it’s just too dang hot for yardwork!

So, write YOUR book! I’ll help you every step of the way.

My online class is sponsored by Kennesaw State University and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Click this LINK to read the catalog listing. The fee has been reduced to $119 (USD), and you’re unlikely to make a better investment of those funds anywhere. Here’s the number to call and secure your spot in the class: 470-578-6765.

And, there’s a bonus!

Everyone who signs up for the class will receive a free PDF copy of my textbook, The Naked Novelist! via email. And while you won’t be able to write notes in the margins, unless you print it out, you’ll get all the funny cartoons, goofy illustrations, and oddball photos in color. The $15 paperback version from Amazon is in black and white. Fortunately, the humor and the writing tips come across just the same.

Actually, there are TWO bonuses!

Because I really want to make this class special, I’m willing to sweeten the pot still further. So, in addition to giving away my novel-writing textbook, I’m going to give away PDF copies of all my other textbooks, too! (I’m sorry these covers appear a little fuzzy. The copies you’ll receive will be pristine, I promise!)

And that’s the deal. If I were a marketing guru, I’d make it look a lot snazzier. But I’m not a marketing guru; I’m a novelist, and I’m quite confident that you can be one, too. For less than the cost of a good meal in a decent restaurant, you’ll get 1) eight weeks of live instruction with plenty of give-and-take discussion, 2) the opportunity to make friends with other writers, and 3) you’ll snag free copies of four of the best writing books on the market. What have you got to lose?

Since I’ve not met all my readers 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 sure hope to see you in class next month!


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Hie thee to the discomfort zone! (Encore)

It seems like everyone at one time or another must face the prospect of doing something they’re not good at. I vividly recall just such a moment when I was tasked with making an announcement during the lunch hour about an upcoming event at one of the schools where I teach. I quickly realized I needed to do something a little extra–in fact, something completely out of the ordinary–or my announcement would likely fall on ears tuned to something else. I’d seen it happen all too often before.

So, instead of timidly approaching the podium to blurble through yet another public service announcement [yawn], I dressed up in what I thought would make me look like the absolute King of Swagger. I even gave myself a pseudonym, Slide N. Golightly, which I thought had just the right stylish sort of ring to it. Check out the dashing, zoot-suited devil in the accompanying photo. I’m quite sure nothing short of Jarvis Q. Dork would fit better.

Then, rather than grab a microphone and natter away, I entered the hall from the opposite end and sashayed through the place carrying on at a volume that would have been heard reasonably well in an NFL stadium.

My audience consisted entirely of folks over 50, and they were busy eating lunch with their friends, so getting their attention was no easy matter. It helped that I was willing to make a complete fool of myself. (And yes–before you ask–I’ve had lots of practice.)

Anyway, it worked. The conversation level dropped to zilch, and I managed to ad-lib my way to the podium. Fortunately, I had a good-natured accomplice who was also willing to provide the sort of repartee that gets a laugh or two. We got several. (Thanks, Quentin!)

Now, what could this possibly have to do with writing, and more specifically, writing a novel? Here’s the thing: it’s all about taking chances. I didn’t have to dress like a fool, and I didn’t have to act like someone named Slide N. Golightly. No one would have said a word if I’d remained my usual, self-effacing, unassuming, gentle, mole-like self. But then, I wouldn’t have gotten much of a reaction from the audience either. The announcement would have failed, and the event would have suffered.

What you write–and how you write it–works in much the same way. If you refuse to explore uncomfortable areas, you run the risk of telling the same sort of story over and over. You give readers a sadly reasonable question: Why buy volume two if it’s merely a rehash of volume one?

When my good friend, Barbara Galler-Smith, and I were working on our first collaborative novel (Druids–a great book, by the way, go buy a copy now), we reached a point in the story which called for a sexy scene. Actually, it required way more than that. It demanded a hot, steamy, page-curler of a sex scene, one which would have a profound impact on the entire series. Naturally, we had a long and involved discussion about which of us should write it.

At the time Barb taught science in a middle school; I worked for an airline as a business analyst. The people she worked with were focused on surviving puberty. My co-workers were flight attendants, some of whom may also have been struggling with puberty (but that’s a whole different story).

Stubborn Granny“My students will read it,” Barb wailed, and quite understandably. “They’ll tell their parents who will think I’m a sex fiend.”

“That’s no big deal,” said I. “My mother will read it, and she’ll know I’m a sex fiend!”

We discussed this impasse at length and finally concluded that my mother, who brought four healthy babies into the world, might possibly have some knowledge of S-E-X. She might even be capable of reading the scene for its [cough] literary value.

Geez. Who the hell knew?

Anyway, I wrote it. Barb edited it. Edge Books published it, and the rest is history. Your mileage, naturally, may vary. The point is, when it’s your time to write a sizzling sex scene, don’t go hide in the laundry. Cowboy up and write the damned thing. Make it as hot and steamy as you can. Ignore that little voice that says “Your kids will think you’re crazy,” or “Your boss will think you’re crazy,” or “Your ____ will think you’re crazy.” Because when it’s all said and done, no one cares. Not even _____, whose negative opinion you thought meant so much.

You’ll survive. And by writing that uncomfortable scene, you’ll be a better writer–but only if you give it everything you’ve got.

Don’t do it for your spouse, your editor, your beloved rabbi, your dear aunt Beulah, or anyone else. Write it because your career depends on it.

Until next time.


PS: The lovely lady pictured above is neither my mother nor my writing partner at the time.

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Williamsburg woes, part deux…. (Encore)

"The details are coming; the details are coming!"

“The details are coming; the details are coming!”

It turns out I’m not done with the whole Colonial Williamsburg thing. In fact, I recall staying awake nights fretting about newly discovered details (new for me, anyway) concerning life in the 18th century as I worked on my Revolutionary War saga, Treason, Treason! Seriously, how many of these things could I squeeze into one book before readers held their collective noses and disposed of my meticulously plotted tome in the nearest dumpster?

In case you missed my last discourse on this–feel free to go here to catch up; I’ll wait–now, here’s more on a writer’s research conundrum: when it comes to unusual and/or generally unknown facts about a particular period in history, how much is enough?

JL tavern bib CU Let’s begin with something simple, like oh, I dunno… napkins. It turns out that patrons of the finer colonial inns could expect to be fitted with bibs roughly the size of bedsheets. The photo at left captures your humble correspondent just prior to being served a magnificent Colonial-style meal, sans soup. One wonders how carefully our ancestors dined, or if they were all as frenzied as Henry Fielding’s legendary rogue, Tom Jones. (In this still from the 1963 movie, “Tom Jones,” you’ll note the obvious historical booboo — no giant napkins. On the other hand, such would only have covered up another pair of booboos. Thank you, Hollywood.)tom_jones_film_a_tantalizing_feast

And then there’s the business of headgear. Based on most of the period movies I’ve seen, all males living in the 18th century were equipped with tri-corner hats. Right?

Uhm… no.

Men’s hats at that time generally had a round brim, and the wearer could opt to fold up, or “cock” the brim, any way he (or she) liked. Tri-cocked hats were all the rage in France and were widely emulated in the colonies, but the good folk in Williamsburg insist that as often as not the brims were done differently, and zero to two “cockings” (“cock-ups?”) were common.

guy in wig

Who wouldn’t want to be seen in this racy number?

gal in wig

Dolly Parton, eat your heart out!

All right then, just what did the well-dressed gent wear under his hat? A wig, right? A white one. And probably powdered to hide the smell or kill bugs or… Wrong again.

For openers, only the upper crust could even afford wigs. In Virginia that amounted to about five percent of the population. So, all the other guys had to make do with plain old hair. And more specifically, their own. Those who could afford fancy hairpieces were not restricted to white ones. They had a full range of styles and colors to choose from. This held true for the ladies, too. A cheap wig, according to the Williamsburg experts, cost about the same amount as a good team of oxen.

oxen CU

Can you say moo?

And, speaking of oxen, I also learned there’s no such “breed” as an ox. Pretty much any old cow, or pair of cows since they usually worked in teams, could earn the Oxen Merit Badge. Males, females, steers, brothers, sisters… didn’t matter. Hitch ’em up! Or trade ’em in for a wig. Hard to beat a deal like that. (And something else I didn’t know, city slicker that I am, all of these critters have horns–boys and girls–kinda like modern-day teens. C’mon. You saw that comin’.)

Okay, almost done for this session. But this one I really like: surgeons were held in lower regard than physicians. Why? Because the latter usually went to some sort of medical school while the former earned their trade from barbers and/or butchers. Your best bet, however, was a trip to the herb lady. She normally carried a wide variety of herbal remedies. And, if all else failed, she also carried a saw and a knife for removing limbs, as well as something torchy to cauterize the stumps. One in four such patients actually survived–the same odds you’d get from a surgeon, and at a reduced cost.

If you haven’t had a chance to get a copy of Treason, Treason! there’s still time. That and a couple dozen other titles by yours truly are available via Amazon. Sorry about the blatant plug, but I’ve still gotta pay the bills.



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How much is enough? (Encore)

I’m reminded of those uber-annoying commercials featuring lip-twisting matrons agonizing over the proper number of prunes needed to ensure regularity. Bleah!

DSC05992What caused me to dredge up such a memory? A trip to Colonial Williamsburg, of all places. With my darling bride in tow, I sought to visit the 18th century and dig up a few quaint but little known details of Colonial life to add authenticity to the book I was working on, Treason, Treason! scheduled to come out the following fall.

It’s entirely possible I stumbled across The Mother Lode of Colonial American trivia. Some of the questions then begged, quite naturally, are as follows:

–How much of this cool insider stuff should I add? At some point, readers will cease to be amazed and simply become annoyed. (Jack Whyte, an historical novelist I’ve met and greatly admire, advises that just because one conducts meticulous research, one hasn’t earned the right to exhaust a reader with every boring detail.)

–How do I know this fabulous material will elicit a positive reaction? I live for the chance to actually watch a reader enjoy something I’ve written. But what if they find fault with one of these research gems? (I can already hear the book cover slamming shut. “No! Please, keep reading; I’m begging you.”)

cartoon JeffersonSo, what kind of stuff am I talking about? How ’bout the idea that Thomas Jefferson had a speech impediment? In fact, saying that might be a wee bit over the top. What we know for sure is that he had a high-pitched voice and loathed public speaking. But it’s quite possible he had other speech-related issues as well.

Does that mean Jefferson is in the book? Only tangentially; I named a building after him. Is that enough to trot out a bit of dialog from an “expert” in order to expose this little known morsel about our redheaded third president?

Here’s another charming scrap I picked up from an enthusiastic Williamsburg cast member (that’s redundant; the entire cast is enthusiastic, and their efforts make all the difference in the world): in certain colonies, when someone was put in the stocks for a lesser infraction of the law, they had their ears nailed in place. In order to be released, the ears had to be cut from the head.

Are you ready to relocate to the 18th century yet?

For some readers, details like that will garner an “Oh, gee, cool!” kind of response. Others will go in search of a place to throw up. What’s an author to do?

How ’bout something non-gruesome: According to at least one of the Williamsburg historians in residence, General George Washington (yep, that one) had a quartermaster named George Bush who played the fiddle for him. Oddly enough, I know exactly where I could work that into the story, but is it over the top? Will readers see it and wonder where, exactly, I lost touch with reality?

But wait! There’s more: females were not allowed to play certain musical instruments because they could not do so without violating strict rules of feminine “deportment.” Among these was the prohibition of exposing their <gasp!> elbows. So much for flutes and violins. And don’t even think about playing other wind instruments; they require the musician to contort the face, inflating and deflating the cheeks, something which was, for women, verboten. The feminine face, it turns out, is the essence of beauty. It must not be marred by unseemly expressions. Cellos, on the other hand, were just dandy for the gals. Go figure.

I’m still working on the answers to all of these, and quite a few more. If you were hoping for closure, well, sorry! (I tried closure once, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, I still have dreams about it. Your mileage, of course, may vary.)

It’s one thing to sit at a comfy desk in an air-conditioned room making stuff up about people you’ll never meet in places you’ll never visit. It’s a whole ‘nuther ball game when you can step right through the funhouse mirror and arrive in that other time and place. I highly recommend it! (And if you’ve never been to Colonial Williamsburg, you’re missing an amazing opportunity to experience American history in a vivid and memorable way.)

DSC05978-CUAnd whether you read Treason, Treason! or simply take a short vacation in the 18th century, be prepared to have your contemporary world turned a little inside-out and a little upside-down. The prunes are entirely optional.


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What’s a tree? (Encore)

My niece, a medical receptionist, witnessed something inspiring last week in the waiting room at the doctor’s office where she works. There were a number of people waiting to see the doctor, and among them was a little girl about four years old. Bella XmasShe sat quietly beside her mother when she noticed a little boy in the waiting room. The girl asked her mother what was wrong with the boy, and her mother answered that he appeared to be blind.

The little girl didn’t understand what that meant and asked for an explanation which her mother quietly supplied.

At this point, my niece went back to her paperwork. But a short while later she heard the little girl talking again and looked up out of curiosity.

She saw the little blind boy smiling as he held hands with the little girl. She had closed her eyes tight and was doing her best to describe for the boy what a tree looked like.

When things like this happen, it restores my faith in mankind.

It also made me think about how difficult that little girl’s job would be. Can you imagine trying to describe a tree to someone who’d never been able to see anything? Where would you even start?

childs drawing of treeOne of the most powerful tools a writer can employ is sensory presentation–using all the senses to convey information, not just that which can be seen. This means expressing story detail that relies on touch, taste, texture and aroma. How big is a tree? What does it feel like? Does it have a smell?

It’s possible to stretch the sensory issue even more. Most people have nine senses. In addition to the five listed above, and originally noted by Aristotle, there are also the senses of pain, balance, heat, and body awareness–we know where our body parts are without looking at them or touching something. Neurologists have suggested many others, like hunger, thirst, or the sense of danger, senses included in countless narratives.

I have to tip my hat to the little girl in that waiting room. If she managed to get her ideas across, she may have a brilliant future ahead of her as a storyteller.

For the rest of us, especially the writers? We’d be wise to learn from her. If for no other reason, some of our “readers” will be getting their information from audiobooks. Think hard on that.

Be well. And take some time to write!


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Dear Josh — an advice column? (Encore)

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to get feedback on my work from a number of incredibly talented writers, Rob Sawyer, Mike Resnick, Kris Rusch, and Steve Sterling to name a few. There have been others, to whom I’m equally grateful, but I don’t wish to be accused of dropping too many names. Those four stalwarts are enough. And I wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of their goodwill. The deal we made when accepting their help was that we agreed to pay it forward. If, God willing, we were able to achieve some measure of success, we promised to help those who followed in our footsteps.

meaning_of_life_1763245I had just such an opportunity not too long ago. A prospective student of mine asked me for advice on the business of independent publishing and self-promotion. My response may be of interest, and I post it here for what it’s worth. I make no guarantees other than that I fully believe everything I’ve said in here is true.

To wit:

Dear <Identities and initial niceties redacted>,

I teach folks how to self-publish. I’m good at it, but when it comes to self-promotion, I’m probably the worst person on Earth to ask! The name of the game these days is “Platform building.” One’s platform is the crowd–hopefully vast–which a writer can influence. You build your platform by being active in social media, through contacts (professional, collegial, recreational, whatever), and by taking advantage of any and all opportunities to put your work in front of people who can act on it. That means they can buy, review, recommend, praise, and/or promote it.

But understand this: the promise you’re making when you embark on this promotional odyssey is that what you’re publishing is top-flight, first-rate, numero uno material. It won’t have sloppy formatting or a wandering storyline. It won’t have lifeless characters or a pointless plot. It’s going to be worth every nickel the reading public pays for it, and more! You’re promising quality, but if you deliver crap–and sadly, all too many indie publishers do precisely that–you’ll condemn your book to failure. Worse, you’ll very likely condemn all your future work to failure, too.

So, make sure you’ve got good stuff to sell, or don’t try to sell it. Make sure it’s thoroughly vetted. If your friends and fellow writers aren’t ecstatic about it, hold off on publishing it. Get another opinion. Figure out what’s wrong, and fix it. You’ll never get it perfect–no one does. But get it as close as you can, because the market is brutally honest. If your stuff sucks, they’ll let you know in no uncertain terms, although they might not say a word, and that’s even worse. The thing you worked on so hard and over which you sweated buckets could just be utterly ignored.

If it’s truly excellent, you might get a few positive reviews. Revel in them! Nasty reviews are much, much easier to write, and disappointed readers are more apt to write them than dole out the happy-talk back pats Mom and Dad give us.

That’s just the way it is.

Best of luck!–Josh

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A Writer’s Brain (Encore)

Homer Simpson's brain

Look hard enough, and you’re almost certain to find a brain in every writer. How big it is and/or how often it’s engaged are questions for another time.

It’s time for something somewhat <cough> headier than usual. I read an article by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times on-line edition about research done a few years ago in Germany to find out what parts of a writer’s brain contribute the most in the creative process. (Full disclosure: I’ve long believed that two things contribute the most to this: deadlines and poverty, but not always in that order. Most of us who can put off the real work of sitting down and hammering stuff out, will almost invariably do so.)

Here’s a link to the article in case you need to read it for yourself (suddenly, you don’t trust me anymore? Was it something I said? Oy.):


Synapse firing. Imagine a bazillion of these puppies going off in your head every time you dream up a new scene.

So, what happens upstairs when we actually do write something? What parts of our brains kick in, and why? According to the German study, prolific writers have different internal reactions than those who write less frequently. Both groups may be absolute idea machines, but those who write a lot activate those portions of the brain geared to speech. Those who don’t write a great deal activate the parts of the brain mostly given to vision.

So, surprise-surprise, writers think in words–both internally and externally–while non-writers think in pictures. It seems likely that seasoned writers, by virtue of practice and repetition, shift the creative process from images to text automatically while those who haven’t done much writing struggle to get what they’ve seen down on paper.

The difference amounts to the novice coming up with: “She was gorgeous in her sexy, green dress.” While the writer generates a description of the low-cut, emerald gown and the redheaded goddess wearing it. There’s just no way around practice, folks!

Perhaps of more interest is what happens inside the brain of a reader. Hm?

Yeah, there’s a whole lot more going on while you’re trying not to fall asleep during the PowerPoint, but I don’t want to confuse you with too much just now. Stay awake, dang it!

A quick look into established theory yields the following: Given a bullet-point list, like those we’ve all come to love in PowerPoint presentations, the brains of most readers will see action in Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area. This is where language gets turned into meaning. Important, certainly, but not StarWarsy cool.

What’ way cool is when that same info is converted into story form. That’s when the reader’s brain gets a jumpstart from the Motor Cortex. Think of it as the Harley-Davidson Area. It’s where the stuff that’s just been read is converted into something akin to experience. Which do you suppose is more likely to be remembered? Vroom-vroooom!

If you’re a writer, and you want to connect with your readers, you’ve gotta pump some fuel into the Harley Area. You do that with sensory stuff. Let readers know how that sexy green dress felt against the redhead’s satiny skin. What her hair smelled like. What her lips felt like. What… Whatever!

Okay, brain surgery’s over for today. Go write something.






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