Top 10 Discoveries About My Book

Joe’s Post #180

This is how I imagine the book cover. Only with the shadow of a man in a coat and hat looking all detectivie

Are you surprised how your book turned out?

Now, spoiler alert, this is a longer post than normal. Get into your comfy underwear, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, put your feet up on the dog and continue.

Yager’s War has come so far since it’s inception back in 2016, but my first historical novel has finally been sent off to my first readers – Two professional writers, and one person who lived through that time.

Oh, but that seems so long, ago, now. A lifetime. And in that lifetime, I learned a lot about my story, which kinda surprised me since I thought I pretty much knew everything about it when I sat down to write it.

So, what did I discover?

1) I discovered that I can’t eat well and write. Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with the novel, per se, but if anyone is looking to write a character in a novel who writes for a living, it’s a good trait. Not a healthy one, but something odd. Quirky. Stupid. Peanut M&Ms. Pop. Pizza. Oddly, I didn’t drink. Sorry Hemmingway.

2) I discovered that I sat down to write this because I love history and World War II history in particular. But it’s not a love based on battles, but stories. It’s something that’s not being taught a lot in schools. It’s all about facts, maps, (wait, I love maps, too), and dates. Even without a specific person, there is a narrative that thrills me. The massively outnumbered Jews who fought the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto. The 500 Spartans at Thermopylae. The Alamo. Then it hit me. I love the underdog. The few who stood up when it mattered BUT died in the end. All knew they would die, yet still fought the fight. That leaked into my novel in a big way (and will certainly be a major part of the second and third novels.)


Iron Lungs. Therapy for polio. But it looks like something out of a horror movie.

I discovered a lot about things we understand now, understand back then. Polio. PTSD. Asperger’s. They’ve all existed since the beginning of time. Like the Queen of England. But we’re only now understanding them fully and I was surprised at the complexity of each one of those subjects.


4) I discovered ‘what to keep in and what to take out’ was tougher than I ever thought. Yanking out a whole subplot ain’t easy, my friends. It’s like trying to yank off a skin tag, it’s quite painful and wants to snap right back. I can still use a lot of what I wrote or imagined in my next book,

5) I discovered I could fall in love with one of

Amelia Anderson. (AKA-
Bryce Dallas Howard)

my characters. It’s amazing how much a story can change even from the 2nd draft, to the third. I yanked out some decent writing about my character’s interaction with a family to explore a love interest and I fell in love with that love interest. Amelia “Amy” Anderson, a brilliant red-head with Sherlock Holmesian Asperger’s. Socially awkward. Kind. Driven. Beautiful (of course, cuz, you know, I’m a guy.) I dream about her now. Don’t tell my wife.

6) I discovered it’s tough to choose what research to use and what not to use. I had to cut research out. Oh, that fine line between having authentic historical details and way, way, way too much information… it’s so easy to cross because information is so fun! (You know what I’m talking about, Paula!)

7) I discovered that I could make myself cry while writing. Not, oh god, this is terrible, but I moved myself at some of the tragic scenes. Maybe no one else will shed a tear, but it’s odd that I could actually get in touch with emotion. Without whiskey. Thanks to Don Maass for making me live in the pain for a while.

8) I discovered, much to my horror, that it was not as much fun, sometimes, to do research. Now, this really shocked me. I love learning new facts. Like did you know that the Kaiser, the Imperial Emperor of Germany, fled to Holland? And had the nickname of the Woodchopper? But trying to get all my facts right, like what soap the Dutch used for dishes or what goods were sold in the Waterlooplein market, well, that took a bit of work and I often got distracted tracking down other details.

9) I discovered this is not, at its heart, a who-killed-Roger-Rabbit story. This is a Jewish

Lest we forget

story. Again, a bit of a shock. Not that I didn’t have Jewish elements in it, but on the last rewrite, it really hit home how much I needed to tell the Jewish story here.

10) I discovered it’s a feminist novel. This came as the biggest shock. BIGGEST. Like finding a spider in your underwear.  Both of my main female characters are strong, independent women in a time where such things were not the norm. Maybe it was all the women in my life who influenced that. My mom who went to university and graduated as the only woman in her class. My wives, Margot and Corinne. My inherited great Baba, who designed and built a frigging church.

But all those discoveries aside, the novel will get one last polish from my first readers, then it’s off to the agent.

It is the best thing I have written, but something not achieved without great pain and anguish. Ask my wife who’d find me wandering around the house muttering, “No, that won’t work, won’t work, my precious, he has to die, yes, die but how, dammit, how?”

It’s been an interesting journey, combining my deep emotional connection to the Netherlands (based on my visits there and my reading of the holocaust), my love of a good thriller, and my love of books that touch a poignant chord within us all.  But, as any writer should, if someone has a way to make it EVEN BETTER, (my first readers, my agent, my editor, Bob the grocery bagger,) then I’ll kick it up yet another notch.

Because I not only want it to be the best story I’ve ever written, but one of the best others will ever read.

The First Rewrite

Joe’s Post #179

Last Wednesday, at 9:44 pm, I finished my first rewrite of my novel, Yager’s War. Or my second draft of it, depending on your point of view.

So, what’s it like to do a rewrite?

Best I compare it to cake, cuz, I’m hungry and I’ve been thinking about cake a lot.

If my book were a cake, this is how I imagined it before I wrote a single word.

When you start out to write a novel, it’s because you have some amazing idea or story or character you MUST write about.

Like a wedding cake, at this point, the story is perfect beyond perfect (because you’ve not written a single word and just have something in your mind.)

You can imagine the sweeping character arcs, the brilliantly described settings, the epic emotions everyone will feel and, of course, the perfect way the plot all comes together.

Then you do your first draft. My first draft had the title, The WW2 Dutch Novel. Like calling something, The Cake. And, if I continue the metaphor, imagine making a cake when you’ve only seen one made by a master. The ingredients are listed, but not the amounts. The cooking time is only hinted at. And, as for the icing, there’s merely a note saying that you need some.

But if you take seminars, go to conferences like the Surrey Writers or attend workshops, you can get the idea you might need 2 eggs instead of one and maybe use some sugar at some point.

So, off you charge to make your cake, all excited cuz, you know, you like to make cakes.

This is what a first draft cake looks like. And it tastes like it looks.

Here is the result. And, guess what, it doesn’t even taste that good.

For some writers, this is as far as it gets. To fix that first draft mess requires a lot of work. Even Stephen King says he looks at what he’s done, sighs, puts it in his drawer and looks at it at a later date.

It’s not like I didn’t try to make a good cake, I simply had to see what worked and what didn’t. And hey, it kinda looks like a cake, right? Kinda a different color than I imagined, and I think I used salt instead of sugar, but now it’s time to fix it.

Can you fix it?

No. Not really. I mean you could put it in a blender, but really, you have to start over. So, in cake creation, like in writing, you start from scratch, again. You work hard to make it look better, taste better, smell better. You also realize that achieving that perfect perfection may be a little harder than you originally imagined.

The first reworking of the cake. See, it looks like a cake, smells like a cake, even tastes like a cake, but is it what you imagined?

The result is the next stage. The stage that I just finished. It looks ok. It even tastes kind of cakey, but you know you can do better. You just know it.

But you have the basics of what your cake will become. You’ve learned a bit about how to make it, how to add some interesting details and it is beginning to take shape.

Now, comes the next step. Refinement.

This is where you take a look at all your parts, all your ingredients, all your techniques and ask the simple question. Can’t I just go buy a cake instead?

Well, you can, but the question you really need to ask is How can I make this better? Then better than that? Then, even better still.

That whole process will take a lot more time, but when people bite into your cake, don’t you want them saying, OMFG is that ever good, I couldn’t stop eating it, this is the best cake I’ve ever tasted.

Now it’s time to work on those final details. The right mix of ingredients.

So, too, does it go with my novel. Now I need to work on making it the absolute best it can be before I send it off, because, as my published writer friend Sean Slater said to me, Joe, you only get one chance at a first impression.

Next week, a quick update on this progress. I think I’ll make a system because I’m all about systems.

Now for some cake.


Historical thrillers anyone?

maxresdefaultHelga’s Post # 120:

Those of you who have followed my blog posts know that I am a writer and devoted fan of reading fiction. Especially historical suspense fiction. British author John le Carré’s espionage novels have long topped the list of my reading pleasure.

But writers need to be flexible, casting their nets wide in search of worthwhile morsels for their own stories. With this in mind, I thought I should check out a non-fiction title on the list of my on-again-off-again book club: ‘Dead Wake – The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.

The WHO? I was intrigued by the subject, admittedly unknown to me. What would motivate me to read a four hundred plus page book about a passenger ship (other than the Titanic) going down during WWI? Not that there is ever an event where lives are lost that is insignificant. Every one of them is. But in the overall scheme of history, aren’t there just as many, or more, sensational events to read about?

I was curious. There must have been SOME reason for my book club to select this particular title. When I brought it home from the local library I researched the author who at this point was unknown to me. My eyes widened. He’d written at least six highly acclaimed books, most notably In the Garden of Beasts – Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Most of his books had garnered solid five-star reviews.

In terms of Dead Wake, according to The New York Times Sunday Book Review, few tales in history are more haunting, more tangled with investigatory mazes or more fraught with toxic secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, one of the colossal tragedies of maritime history. It’s the other Titanic, the story of a mighty ship sunk not by the grandeur of nature but by the grimness of man.

I continued researching other works of the author. His next title, Thunderstruck, was equally starred. That story too had me going. Here, Larson gives us history, stranger than fiction, brought to life by his attention to detail and skilled writing:

“The saga of how the lives of the inventor of wireless and of Britain’s second most famous murderer (after Jack the Ripper) intersected during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. The inventor was G. Marconi, the young Italian genius; the killer was Hawley Harvey Crippen, who murdered his overbearing wife and fled Britain with his mistress, unaware that Scotland Yard was hot on his heels. The book—an instant New York Times bestseller—brings to life a host of forgotten characters, including spirit mediums, ghost-hunting physicists, Scotland Yard inspectors, and one of the great pioneers of forensic science. The climax occurs during a trans-Atlantic chase which, thanks to the miracle of Marconi’s invention, was followed by millions of people around the world—with Crippen and his mistress completely unaware.”

History, told at its best. History that reads like the best of thrillers.

Larsen captured four more historical events that, by themselves, may hold little interest for the average reader. But with his meticulous research and skilled writing, he was able to forge these events into fascinating, richly coloured stories. His books are truly hard to put down after the first page or two.

What fascinates me about these non-fiction books is the way they are written. They lure me to keep on reading, even though I have never heard of the Lusitania before. It’s the detail that has me snared from the get-go. And this is what I would like to do in my own writing, in historical suspense fiction. Take Larsen’ first paragraph of Dead Wake:

“On the night of May 6, 2015, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings. The room was large and warm, paneled in mahogany and carpeted in green and yellow, with two fourteen-foot-tall fireplaces in the front and rear walls. Ordinarily Turner avoided events of this kind aboard ship, because he disliked the social obligations of captaincy, but tonight was no ordinary night, and he had news to convey.”

What news? I had to keep reading. And the suspense increased with every page. And yes, the devil is in the detail – Larson made good use of archives and cleverly weaved in those seemingly unimportant and gossipy snippets of dialogue and letters that readers are so fond of.

In all, a good, no excellent, example of how skilled writing, with attention to detail – especially small detail – and relationships between various characters can propel a story to bestseller status. Even better if the context of the story is a true historical event. In a previous post I wrote about this topic between a captured Russian spy and his American defender (Tom Hanks) in the movie Bridge of Spies. Here too the actual event is overshadowed by the characters’ relationship and the small details that made it so memorable.

There is no moral to the story, to my post. Just random musings about how we writers can harvest useful morsels from a variety of sources – and enjoy ourselves in the process. Readers love to read about characters, their relationships and conflicts, interesting dialogue, colourful settings and detail, and especially if the context is a historical event.

Add a good dose of suspense and readers will be along for the ride. From page one to The End. Fiction or non-fiction.


Surprise, surprise

Joe’s Post #84

One of the hardest things to do as a writer of suspense fiction, is…

Wait for it…

movies-20-shocking-twists-gallery-2A surprise.

Or, more specifically, that lovely plot twist that’s essential to a good mystery/thriller. Like the ending of “The Usual Suspects”.

Why is it so hard?

Cuz it’s hard to surprise yourself. Not impossible, though, I mean I surprise myself all the time. I managed to remember where my keys were once. That was a shocker. I didn’t scream like a girl while zip lining (despite any stories Corinne may tell). That’s a huge surprise. And one time, kinda drunk, I even danced on a table which, I’m pretty sure, surprised everyone.

But writing a story surprise is way harder than all of that. It’s because you know exactly what you’re doing. It doesn’t often come as a shock that the one armed man did it because when you thought of the idea, you thought, hey, that one armed guy did it and now I have to hide it so my audience is surprised.

But how do you know?

How do you know if that plot twist has worked?

eric robertsCSI-like shows rarely surprise me anymore. It’s always someone we’ve met (an essential element to any surprise), it’s usually some semi-famous actor (or Eric Roberts – if he’s in it, he did it). And even if they always do their best to hide whodunit, it’s pretty formulaic.

So, now I tend to watch those shows to see how they do it.

So how?

1. By red herrings, for one. That’s where you make the audience think it’s Eric Roberts’ twin where it really was, well, his twin. The other twin. It’s a false clue, a person with a motive to kill the victim or a misinterpretation of evidence.

2. The red herring must distract the main character. Not like, oh look, it’s a topless girl, no, something like ALL the clues point to the boyfriend when it was actually the cat or something.

3. The big twist has to be set up in the beginning and, if necessary, reinforced throughout the story. Remember The Sixth Sense. The surprise at the end was epic, but it was carefully crafted from the very beginning (the hero just misinterpreted all that he was seeing).

4. The audience can know what’s going on, who the bad guy might be, but it’s essential that if the hero doesn’t know, it’s for a very good reason. The detective should never be stupid.

Year-7-Plot-Twist-Story_35. It’s important to make something unexpected happen. The picture to the left is a good example of this.

Oh, there are a lot more things to consider, but what I want to get across is how hard it is for the author to know if cool plot twist will be a surprise, or will it be seen a mile away?  Will it come out of nowhere and people say, that was stupid, I’m gonna kill your dog for that?

So that’s what I worked on this week. I tried to add surprises to my story. A lot of what-ifs followed by how do I introduce that, combined with “is that even plausible?” with a lot of “where the hell do I even put that plot twist?”

In the end, the only way I’ll know for sure is when the reader has at it.

Any suggestions?


Number of Birthdays I Had: 1

Number of Blogs Written: 2

Number of pages written on new novel: 0

Number of Queries Sent Out: 0

Number of Outline Pages Rumpled Up and Thrown on the Floor: 23

Number of Sting/Paul Simon Concerts Seen: 1 (an amazing birthday gift from the prettiest girl on the planet.)

The series game has one rule


Mea culpa – yes, I’m a day late again this week. Sorry to intrude on Paula’s Tuesday again, but the good news is that you may be getting two-posts-for-the-price-of-one today!

Silk’s Post #70 — Does anyone writing genre fiction even think about writing a stand-alone novel anymore?

Series. That’s the holy grail. The brass ring. The magic word that rolls off the tongue like the sexy serpent in the Garden of Eden. SSSS-e-r-i-e-s. Or, visualized another way:


But listen up, fellow emerging writers (aka the great not-yet-published hoard): if writing one novel – and getting it published – is a mountain climb, then writing a commercially successful series is like climbing every mountain in the Hindu Kush.

So, if this is what you’re up to, sharpen your pitons, load up your backpack that weighs as much as a small horse, and prepare to experience some oxygen deprivation. Best I can advise you if you’re afraid of heights or doubt your fitness for this trip is: don’t look down, lean forward, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Truthfully, aren’t all genre writers — especially those of us who lust to see our names on the mystery-suspense-crime-thriller-legal shelves — really dreaming of series?

Who are our idols, if not James Patterson, Scott Turow, Sue Grafton, Ian Rankin, Elizabeth George, John le Carré, James Lee Burke, Jeffery Deaver, Patricia Cornwell, Donna Leon, David Baldacci, Sara Paretsky, Jo Nesbo, Tom Clancy, Anne Perry, Walter Mosley, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, P.D. James, Harlen Coben, Robert B. Parker, Peter Robinson, Elmore Leonard, Kathy Reichs, John Connolly and Michael Connelly?

And who were their idols but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardiner, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald … even Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, who hooked them on mysteries at a tender age?

You can add your own favourite names to these lists, but it’s a good bet that most of them – like these – will have two things in common. First, they are authors of series. Second, they created famous protagonists – memorable characters who returned the favour and made their authors famous.

And that is the one inviolable rule in this business of series fiction. A great protagonist.

To climb the mountain, you need to invent an intriguing, enduring alter-ego to accompany you. Not just accompany you, but lead you through the snowdrifts of saggy middles, rescue you from the trackless wilderness of boredom and obscurity, and pull you up over the precipice when you’re dangling by a thread. A protagonist who is strong enough, smart enough, complex enough, resourceful enough, engaging enough, vulnerable enough, and likeable enough to climb to the heights, fall to the depths, recover and triumph. Again and again. Evolving somehow with each new story, but always solid at the core.

You can certainly have a memorable protagonist in a stand-alone book (for instance, it’s hard to believe that Dashiell Hammett’s larger-than-life Sam Spade appeared in only one full length novel, The Maltese Falcon). But it’s hard to pull off a series without a memorable “anchor” protagonist (it takes a talent like Scott Turow to establish a multi-protagonist series like his Kindle County stories, and even so he knits them together with recurring characters).

But remember: you will have to live with this protagonist for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health – possibly until death do you part. So you better love and cherish him or her if you want your readers to do the same.

Once you know that character to the bone, you can drop plot after plot on his or her head, and your protagonist will come alive and spring into action – and action is the lifeblood of story.

Okay, now to the fun part! Can you pair these famous protagonists with their authors? Answers are shown at the end for those who can’t guess whodunnit …



1-p; 2-o; 3-q; 4-t; 5-w; 6-y; 7-d; 8-l; 9-c; 10-r; 11-v; 12-g; 13-u; 14-b; 15-j; 16-k; 17-i;
18-n; 19-x; 20-h; 21-f; 22-z; 23-e; 24-a; 25-m; 26-s.


the-lineupFor an extremely insightful and entertaining look into the hearts and souls of some of the most beloved detective protagonists and their creators, read The Lineup edited by the legendary Otto Penzler, in which “The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives”… in their own words and style. Published by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little Brown, this book is a gem that belongs on every crime writer’s shelf.

Crime of passion


Paula’s Post #57  Happy 5writers New Year’s Eve!

In yesterday’s post, The Top 10 Most Overlooked Emotions, my 5writer colleague Silk closed out the year with a thought-provoking commentary enumerating ten under utilized emotions writers may wish to consider when seeking motivation for their fictional characters.

I’m sure Silk’s outstanding post caused many of you, like me, to pause and reflect on your current work in progress. Did you find yourself examining your literary characters’ motivations and how these motivations relate to your plot and character development?

What’s the verdict?

In retrospect, did your protagonist’s emotions seem real and genuine? Believable? Likely to enthrall your readers and keep them flipping the pages into the wee hours of the night?

I hope so.

But what about your antagonist?

I think we can all agree that here is where the real fun starts. If we 5writers learned anything this past year or so it is that we had a whole lot more fun with our antagonists than with our protagonists.

Many of you have been fortunate enough to attend a seminar, workshop or lecture given by literary agent and writing guru Donald Maass, the author of several bestselling books on the craft of writing including Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and The Fire in Fiction, all available from Amazon.

If you’ve ever attended one of Mr. Maass’ workshops, you’re familiar with his oft asked question:

What could cause your villain to care deeply enough to… ________”

Go ahead. You fill in the blank.

Right about now, I can see you thinking about your carefully constructed character sketches… your convoluted plot… wondering if you’ve imbued your protagonist and/or antagonist with sufficient emotional triggers to carry your story.

If you’re writing a murder mystery, or even a thriller, your plot may revolve around a: ‘crime of passion’: the name given to any crime committed under circumstances that involve the compelling emotion of the perpetrator.

One usually thinks of murder or at least assault causing grievous bodily harm.  The ‘Love Kills’ garden variety type of crime where a jealous cuckolded husband takes revenge on the adulterous couple.

But even here, isn’t the writers’ magnifying lens required to determine the actual emotion at play? Did jealously provoke the act? Humiliation? Rage? Overwhelming feelings of inadequacy? What is the triggering emotion that caused such a loss of control? Some component of anger for sure, but here, the subtle differences are the writers’ paintbrush.

Take a closer look at the definition: ‘the compelling emotion of the perpetrator”.

No where is the word jealousy used. You, the author, have free rein here. Your imagination and the endless reach of the internet your very best friends. Check it out yourself by googling “crimes of passion” or better yet “odd crimes of passion” or even “bizarre crimes of passion”.

Having fun yet?

Getting some good ideas?

I mean come on! Who can forget the headline grabbing accounts of Lorena Bobbitt’s bizarre attack on her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt in 1993?

If you clicked on the “bizarre attack” above, you’ll notice that I’ve linked back to the Wikipedia account of the crime. I can already see some of you frowning. She does her research on Wikipedia? Seriously? ‘Lightweight’ you mutter under your breath.

But stop and think about it for a moment – if you’re seeking inspiration, if you’re writing fiction, does your source research need to be completely accurate? Isn’t it more important that it just be believable, or better yet entertaining? Your not writing a scholarly treatise here, you’re looking for inspiration.

In the Bobbitt case, I have no idea whether the contributors to the above wiki are correct or not when they report:

“After the incident, John Wayne Bobbitt attempted to generate money from his notoriety in a number of ways. He formed a band, The Severed Parts, to pay his mounting medical and legal bills, though the band was unsuccessful and failed to generate enough money.[12] In 1994, John appeared in the  John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut, in another attempt to make money. In 1996, he appeared in another adult film, Frankenpenis (also known as John Wayne Bobbitt’s Frankenpenis).”


Seriously? Is that true? The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) says it is, but who cares?

Yes, who cares!

I could go on forever with examples mined from the internet, but the point I’m trying to make is that perhaps for many of us, our background and training has fettered the way in which we approach our fiction. Are we too logical? Too dispassionate in our research?

Have you fallen into this trap?

If we writers spend too much time researching dates and places and facts and figures, if we get bogged down in a futile attempt to probe too deeply into the soundness of scientific theory, are we not perhaps missing out on the opportunity to entertain our readers?

If you’re a fan of Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers, I can already hear you grumbling. But just for fun, give it a try for yourself.

My challenge, for this last post of 2013 is to ask each of you to do a little internet surfing of your own. Research the phrase ‘Crime of Passion’ or some variant thereof. Mine one or two little gems from the internet and concoct your own ‘pitch’ for a story.

A one line story idea that sparks your imagination. I cannot tell a lie, I got the ‘one sentence’ idea from a fabulous site inspired by the concept of brevity. The idea that most of the best stories that we tell from our lives have one really, really good part that make the rest of the boring story worth it.

So, have some fun. Think up a crazy crime of passion. Tell us the story in just one sentence. Maybe you’ll find your inspiration on the internet, maybe in one of Silk’s 10 most overlooked emotions.  Don’t be shy. Post it below! A real writer could never resist this challenge.

Happy 5writers New Year!

Lost and found


Joe’s Post #45 – What if there was a roadmap for story writing? Would you use it? Would it destroy the creative process? Would it make your story like every other story that used that roadmap?

We already have the basics of a roadmap, the western 3 act structure. Add the odd guide on outlining or The Writer’s Journey and whammo, there’s a few more beacons. But that’s about the limit of the directions. Kinda of like asking a local where the ruins are (or nudie bar or whatever you’re looking for). As often as not, they wave in a general direction. “It’s over there.”

That’s about the best directions we can get for writing. We know the story is over there somewhere. We can see it in the distance like a beautiful, imaginary castle. How we get there, though, can be as different as the stars in the sky. A literary path might include poetic language, memorable descriptions and lots of sunsets. A thriller novel might be very fast paced and include a car chase, a sexy sidekick and at least one gun battle. Stephen King might add a killer clown.

For me, the journey of writing, walking that path to the glorious castle in the distance, is part of the fun. Sure I’ll get lost in the woods. Sure I’ll get stuck in the mud. Sure I’ll even get disheartened sometimes.

But I’ll get there and what I’ll discover along the way can be amazing, things I never thought I’d find. Quirky characters. Odd locations. Nifty twists and turn.

lostSo, at least for me, I don’t want a detailed road map. I love the journey. I even love getting lost now and then. It’s how I make the story better.

The other side of the critique

EPSON scanner imageJoe’s Post #39 — As some of you know, way, way back, before cell phones, before computer spell-checkers, before I could even type, I wrote my first book at the wise age of 9. Invasion of the Mole People.  Blue construction paper cover.  Twenty handwritten pages.  Jam smears on a few pages.  Eleven illustrations.   All bad.  My parents loved it.  My teachers loved it.  My friends loved it.


I thought this would be what it would be like to be a writer. Everyone reading my work would love it. They would praise how clever I was and give me candy.

Sadly, years and years and years later, when I took my first real novel to my first real critique group, I thought it would be the same. With even more candy.

It was not.

Back then (and, truth be told, for years to come,) I thought everything I wrote was gold. I thought every word I put on paper was a gem, to be admired and preserved for future generations.

Turns out, I was wrong.

My first lesson was that I write pretty well. I still do. I can create interesting characters. I can make people laugh. I can even make them cry. I can write a novel in 5 months (hell, I did one, poorly, in a week.) But what I still need to learn is how to tell a great story and by that I mean write a great NOVEL.

You’d think the two were the same, right? Good writer equals good novelist? Nope. Turns out you can have one without other.

It’s a complex task putting together a great novel. There’s a flow and balance you have to learn, there are arcs of character and theme, there’s magic, that undefinable quality that some books have. You have to do so much right to build an amazing story.

The second lesson I learned is that I will miss stuff. Simple things like calling the dog Sambuka on page 12 and Buttsniffer on pg 45. Or misspelling hangar for the entire novel. Or thinking I’ve told the readers something when I deleted it or lost it due to cutting and pasting (things I still do to this day!)

The other lesson I learned early on is that I have to change my expectations on what a group can do for me. It’s not about telling me how amazing I am, though please don’t let that stop anyone, but rather about what works and what doesn’t. What did I get right and what did I get wrong?

But the critquers, as good as they may be, won’t get everything right, either. Some love thrillers, some romance, some literary memoirs. Like me, when I critique, I bring what I LIKE in a novel. So it becomes a balance of listening to what people have to say and running that through your own mind. Does this make sense for my novel? Does it make it better? It may not be a romance but can I add something more romantic? It may not be a thriller but can I have thrilling moments? It may not be a literay novel but for the love of god, can I at least have one insight into the human condition?

In other words, I learned to go in with an open mind. It is not my baby that people are critiquing, it is a shoe. I made the shoe, I may even like the shoe but it’s a shoe so I will do whatever I need to do to make the shoe the best shoe I can do.

candySo, this weekend we’ll begin the critiquing of our novels. I, for one, look forward to hearing what people thought and how I could possibly make it even more awesome.

Though I still hope there’s still candy.

Hey, you! Wanna buy a book?


Joe’s Post #30 — The last thing I want to do is paint myself as some sort of expert on this subject. I’m not. I’m just Joe trying to figure this out like everyone else.  But I do have a process. It may not be for everyone and I welcome any and all advice to improve upon my chances of success.

So, sit back, grab a drink and let me lead you into that vast and cobwebbed labyrinth that is my mind.

For me, querying is by far the hardest part of being a writer. It terrifies me. I want to slink under the bed and hide from the scariest monster of all: Rejection. Oh, I have no problem pounding out a novel, no fear there. Nor do I fear rewrites or tossing out vast swaths of my manuscript to write a better story. I don’t fear critiques, spiders or people saying I write like a 2-year-old on dope.  But faced with a query letter to write then SEND, boy, I tell you, it’s a tough one for me.

To quote Nicholas Sparks “Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important  page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will  either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.”


But there seems to be some sort of correlation between getting published and writing queries. Apparently my psychic powers are not enough to wake up an agent in the middle of the night and get him or her to call me and say, send me your manuscript.

So, I nut up and begin.

First up, for today, finding an agent. There are many great resources out there, but Nathan Bransford is certainly one to check out. He says it better than I ever could and he knows it from both sides, the writer and the agent.

SKFor me, I begin with research. The first ones I have queried have been agents I’ve met at conferences or workshops and didn’t throw up on. Then I progress to agents that I find from my favourite authors. I read the acknowledgments. Make notes. I mean why not send to an agent who represents an author and genre I like? Stephen King’s agent, however, has not replied. I think this is to be expected.

For research beyond that, there are many avenues including a simple google search, but I chose querytracker, the Association of Author Representatives,  Preditors and Editors, Agent and perhaps the greatest resource of all, Publisher’s Marketplace.  These sites, and there are others, but these sites combined give me a pretty good idea of who wants what and how they want submissions done.

But those resources, as good as they are, aren’t everything. The agent I queried yesterday, Barbara Poelle I found from reading Writer’s Digest. She answered 14 Questions You’re Too Afraid To Ask Literary Agents.  Funny as hell (she seems to share my same sense of humor) and (from Publisher’s Marketplace) “She loves unusual literary fiction with a commercial edge, thrillers, and anything with a great voice.” Perfect, I thought. I’m unusual, I wrote a thriller and I wrote it with a great voice. So I sent her a query.

Now, when I write my queries, I want them to be as personal as I can make them. I will never say, Dear Agent. I will use their name and pray to God I spell it right. I won’t spam out the same query to all agents, I will tailor it to the agent based on a few things. I’ll research them as noted above, I’ll read their blogs (and man, there are some great blogs out there), I’ll check out the authors they represent, I’ll read their twitter feeds and I’ll do a basic google check. This also helps me determine if indeed the agent is right for me. If someone is looking for Highlander erotica primarily, no sense in sending them a book about detectives in the desert who don’t wear kilts.

And then I send out the query. I hold my breath. Move the mouse over the ‘send’ button. Close my eyes. And click. (Or, in some cases, put it all in an envelope and toss it in the mail box.)

It’s still terrifying. I won’t deny it. Before I send off any queries, I am the greatest writer of all time, funny and handsome and charming and so sure that everyone will want to read my novel. But querying puts my book out there. I risk not being the greatest writer of all time (though I still may be funny and handsome and charming).  I risk a blow to my self-esteem.  I risk not being read, the worst thing that can happen to a writer.

But it’s the price I have to pay to get published.

And honestly, at this point, being a new writer, the best I can hope for is that someone is willing to take a chance on me – that I’m taking this very seriously, that I can write, and that I can tell a good story that people will want to pay money to read.

Wish me luck.

Next week, a query I wrote for fun. To relieve the stress a bit.

Famous first lines and apple tarts

Helga’s Post #6 — One week after our return from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Information overload on books and writing. How to write the perfect book, how to avoid pitfalls, how to pitch your manuscript to agents, etc. etc. Three days filled with dozens of workshops on those and many more topics, keynote speakers, and sharing stories and laughs among ourselves. Among 700 or so people connected by the passion for the craft of writing. 700 women and men who keep on writing bravely even in the face of formidable odds against seeing our work published; to continue writing endless hours without getting paid, simply because we want to tell a story.

I would like to share some of what I’ve learned at one of the conference sessions.  It is about the perfect formula on starting a novel. Literary agents and editors are deluged with unsolicited manuscripts and submissions, hundreds a week or more, way beyond their capacity to read them all. So they have developed a method to quickly scan and evaluate which ones are worthy of their time. Sadly, most end up in the trash can. So how do I make sure these good folks are sufficiently motivated to read my work?

If you think it’s by writing a perfect first page, or paragraph, you are wrong. Nothing of the sort.

The reality is that my work may be read if I have written the perfect first line or sentence. In case I can pull it off: not only will my manuscript snare the agent’s attention and get the reading it deserves (in my opinion), but it will also entice future readers to get hooked on my story and buy the book. So let’s look at some famous first sentences and judge for yourself if you would be motivated to read on:

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” (From ‘Paradise’ by Toni Morrison)

“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk doing terrible things.” (From ‘Horns’ by Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son)

“Three men at the McAlester Penitentiary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s figuring, hardly human at all.” (From ‘Dirty White Boys’ by Stephen Hunter)

These are examples that tell the reader up front that they can expect a fast-paced action thriller. It’s both a promise and a warning for those who are not up to it. For somewhat slower-paced stories, here are a couple of others that are supposedly snagging readers’ attention:

“Once upon a time – for this is how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.” (From ‘The Book of Lost Things’ by John Connolly).

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.” (From ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott)

“The circus arrives without warning.” (From ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern)

What they all have in common is that they intrigue readers. Who can resist a good tease or hint? These first lines are hooks that will keep them turning the pages.

And then the instructor said something that heartened me immensely: chances are, he said, the beginning of your manuscript, the first few chapters, are boring, with too much fluff and non-action stuff, and too little conflict. A good start is always in the middle of an action scene. Forget about back-story, elaborate description of settings, the weather, or – worst of all – someone just waking up or taking a shower. His advice: throw away your first three or four chapters.

Start your book with chapter four or five. Hah!

Why did this hearten me? Because I haven’t written the first three or four chapters in my 5 writers challenge novel. So that means I am actually ahead of the game, because I am supposed to throw them out anyways. Now, if I compare this to Joe’s first 20 pages that he tells us he has written, it means that I am far ahead of him. According to my (female) logic.

Last but not least, a note on how I deal with writers’ block (the subject of another workshop). Lots of advice given. None that work for me. Forget yoga, meditation, long walks in the rain, and so on. When the dark cloud of writers’ block descends upon me, I get up from my chair and head for the kitchen.

And I start doing what I like best after writing – putting together what I hope will be a delicious meal, or some baking. So I made a Normandy apple tart today, with Gravenstein apples from our tree. Big fat chunks of apples arranged on a blind-baked buttery pastry shell and smothered with a custard of eggs, creme fraiche, sugar and copious amounts of Calvados. Baked for an hour while heavenly smells wafted through the house.

My temporary writers’ block was much appreciated by my spouse. Maybe I should write a cookbook instead of a thriller, he suggested.

I wouldn’t go quite that far, rest assured.

Normandy apple tart