Saturday, January 31, 2009

Three Random Things

For the most part, the blog stays focused on writing. Allow me to digress today. Three random, unrelated points:

#1) I mentioned this once before earlier in the month, but stay tuned for next Wednesday as I’ll be posting my book review. I did want to point out the nifty “Book Review Club” typewriter that Barrie sent my way to link up with the other book club participants. Can you see it? It is up on the top left. How exciting!

#2) We went out to Razzoo’s last night to celebrate my cousin birthday. Happy Birthday, cuz! Every had a rat toe? No, it is not a rodent part but a jalapeno, a delicious but very hot jalapeño. Tonight seemed extra hot!

#3) I decapitated 33 people’s heads to win the Guillotine game last night. If you hadn’t played this clever card game, google “guillotine card game” as plenty of places sell it (~$5). Basically, each player tries to decapitate the highest ranking nobles over a course of three days of executions. Though it sounds bleak, it really is a ‘cute’ game that all ages can play (no blood or guts involved). Yes, nothing like a few executions with the family to kick off the weekend.

Such rambling ...

I mentioned the writing zone yesterday. I will end today’s early morning post by saying that I hope today (Saturday) keeps me in the writing zone. I have really enjoyed writing today. Isn’t being a writer great?

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Writing Zone

Consistency seems to be a crucial factor to becoming a successful author. I’ve seen several authors advise their peers to write everyday whether they feel up to it or not. Sure, I’ll admit that days pop up when I don’t feel as inspired. The normal days come up as well: I’m a writer. Ho-hum-hum, guess I’ll scratch out a few sentences of progress on ‘the book’.

Ah, but then what about those other days? The days when everything you type comes across better than you had envisioned. Your story flows, your characters sound perfect, and you make more progress in one sitting than you had made in the preceding week. Oh, glorious day, you stumbled into the writing zone!

So, what gets us in the zone? Is it extra sugar in the coffee, a good night’s rest, a snow day? I’m sure we could rattle off various theories. My favorite, however, the one instigator to the writing zone that feels the best to me is the breakthrough.

A time comes when every writer agonizes over a section or character that fails to fit into the story the way the author anticipated. Sometimes days will pass without a resolution. Then, it comes to you, your breakthrough. You sit down to type and the words just flow. Authors love the writing zone.

Discouraged? Don’t be. You’re in a valley, but know that just around the corner, any day now, will be your breakthrough. You’ll get that novel fixed. You’ll find the writing zone!

Anyone have any suggestions on getting into the writing zone? If so, help the rest of us. Is it an extra cookie, perhaps, or maybe a short break?

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Michelle Diener offered warning yesterday over at Magical Musings on giving out too much information (the dreaded T.M.I.) in historical novels. Michelle’s cleverly stated rule of thumb is, “If you are putting something in to clarify your story for the reader, you’ve written the story wrong.”

I’m sure we’ve all encountered books where the plot is racing along and then suddenly the main character stops to discuss some item of “interest” for five paragraphs. First, such a mistake reminds me that I’m reading a book, which is never good. I also have to say that it makes me feel awkward reading those passages. It’s like I’ve pointed out to a stranger that he doesn’t belong in the room we’re both standing in.

All historical fiction writers are, by nature, historians at heart. Most keep the family photos in order and save newspaper clippings, etc. We love researching interesting tidbits to integrate into our novels. This naturally makes us very adept at conveying the past nature of a place. Of course, this also means that we revel in meaningless details that have zero appeal to the mainstream population.

Personally, when writing PHAIAKIA, I learned a plethora of ancient Greek names for different places and things. It tempted me sorely not to work all these into the story. Admittedly, I did work them in initially which made for a lousy first draft. I eventually made use of a few but only as they came up integral to the plot.

It took me awhile to learn, but I at last realized that the secret to the tempting peril of over-information is ironically more knowledge. The more I learned and felt comfortable with ancient Greece, the easier it became for me to integrate words and concepts and places into my writing. I stopped trying to work these into the story and instead simply made use of them as I wrote. This subtle difference translated into a real paradigm shift for me that really elevated my historical fantasy, PHAIAKIA, to a whole new level.

When in doubt, I find having a friend read my manuscript as being very helpful. When you bore your friends, you know you are in trouble. If you’ve never been inspired to seek out a critique group, check out Barry Summy’s blogs from this week on her Denny’s group.

Alright, that’s all for me. I’d hate to be accused of T.M.I.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More Sketching

I can hear ice pelting against my study window. Brrr … I suspect that going into work will be delayed this morning. Yes, Texans can’t go to work if it ices. Nope. Alas, my work’s delayed opening is usually not posted until ~ 6:45AM. I guess I’ll still go ahead and get ready to go in once I finish here.

Yesterday we talked about the similarities between drawing and writing. I want to continue that line of thought as I continue to improve upon what I learned while writing “PHAIAKIA” …

I’ve watched artistic friends sit down and noodle out a recognizable character with a few quick pen strokes. If it were me drawing, I would take lines and lines and hours trying to replicate what they did in a moment. Even then, my rendition of the character would probably resemble more a zombie blob than a person.

Ever read a book where you get into it and have trouble visualizing the characters, setting, etc.? Maybe the problem is that the author never really learned to sketch. I’m certain a seasoned agent spots this immediately. The amateur author takes voluminous words to express a single character’s appearance where a professional integrates the same into dialogue or a few words. For the accomplished writer, descriptions flow with much less effort and much more confidence.

Granted, the accomplished writer had to start somewhere. Where, eh? Practice. Activity time -- Choose a famous person and write a quick, confident sentence describing him/her. Can’t think of anyone? Try Obama. His picture is on everything these days.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sketching Dickens

My little sister and my best friend enrolled in the after school art club when we were in elementary school. I cannot recall why I was there, but I am confident it didn’t have anything to do with artistic ability. One of the exercises involved a self portrait. You study yourself in the mirror then sketch your face. I’m not going to lie -- my effort today probably wouldn’t look much better than what I drew twenty whatever years ago.

As it turns out, training your eye to see things differently separates me from the artist. Some of you drawing types can correct me on this, but an artist studies a face. The painter visualizes lines, shadows, perspective and so on until he/she knows how to sketch the contours. An untrained schmuck like me looks at face and ends up with a circle and a couple of dots.

A writer must also train his/her eye to see the world differently. Dickens comes to my mind as someone who paints detailed characters with a sure stroke. For grins, I snared “Great Expectations” from the bookshelf and randomly turned to a chapter. The following passage quotes Dickens’ description of Mr. Wemmick (introductory paragraph of Chapter XXL):

“I found him to be a dry man, rather short in stature, with a square wooden face, whose expression seemed to have been imperfectly chipped out with a dull-edged chisel. There were some marks in it that might have been dimples, if the material had been softer and the instrument finer, but which, as it was, were only dints. <…> He had glittering eyes – small, keen, and black – and thin wide mottled lips.”

I have to think that even Dickens did not naturally see nor describe people in such a manner but what a visual we now have of Mr. Wemmick. In a few broad strokes, Dickens sets out not only Mr. Wemmick’s physical description but the manner of the man himself. An encounter with such a stern fellow sets the chapter’s tone and mood.

The description of Mr. Wemmick contrasts with my natural inclination to describe hair color, eye color, and style of clothes (this is key) all without a thought to how these things personify the character. I don’t recall learning anything in art club, but I am determined to learn from Dickens and others. Sketching a lively fictional character just takes a little training and practice.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Kid Books

I sat down in the rocking chair and cradled sleepy #2 son in my arms and read him his final bedtime story last night. #2 son already knows his favorites and will point to which book he wants. Having read it so frequently, I can quote his favorite story verbatim without the book. Nonetheless, I hold it up for good effect where he can see it. Especially, since at age one, we focus more on the pictures than anything.

I’ve noticed that despite only being able to use a few words (not even a sentence’s worth in most cases), the really great children’s authors still manage to convey an entire story, often in only ten or so pages. Most of these short books even come with a lesson. These authors craft the kids’ books short out of necessity. Say anymore and the audience loses attention.

That doesn’t really change in adult books (or, blogs – hmm … are you still reading? ha-ha-ha …). An author has to be very intentional. It again reminds me that good writers can tell a story without paragraphs of scenery and description. These things need only appear as part of the story. Authors must remember their audience. I wanted to put #2 son to sleep. I don’t want my story to do the same to my readers.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Put It on Paper

Brrr … it’s cold in Texas right now!

In other news, my sister has twins, and they turn two this week. Consequently, we spent last evening at a rowdy “Hello Kitty” themed family birthday party. The best gift was this four by four foot inflatable “thing” filled with 250 (not a mistype – 250!) soft plastic balls. No amount of writing would do it justice but the kids loved it. For all you parents out there, my sister says they got it at Toys R Us. Personally, it probably wouldn’t last a week before #1 Son (the dog) ate all the balls or the inflatable thing itself.

My #2 son took a big 3 hour power nap yesterday so I ended up with a bit of free time which I used to continue work on my story outline for Book #2. As much as I would like to think that I could iron out all the details of my story inside my head, I have to admit that most don’t become apparent to me until I start typing. I find it much easier to develop my next thought once I have an initial idea on paper. The other plus is that I don’t forget anything.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Baby II

Yesterday’s blog on being a new parent took me back to this time last year when I was just learning to be a new dad. I had read every parenting book I could get my hands on and had interrogated friend after friend about what I needed to know. I was ready, or so I thought. The thing about parenting is that you can hear and read and study all you want but until the baby comes, it just isn’t the same. Once junior arrives is when your education really begins.

Isn’t the same true of authoring a book? You can read self help guides all you want and talk to as many published authors as you like and so on, but it isn’t until you start your own writing that the real education begins. Things like plot and characters that sounded easy in a book or when someone else was describing them become difficult when it is your own story. It is all left to you and that, my friends, is a whole different story. Like with parenting, the most learning occurs once you start the actual journey. Go ahead. Be an author. Commit to it. Like with having a kid, writing a book is worth the effort.

Oh, did I mention that I am keeping Son #2 (son #1 is the dog) all by myself today? Hmm … I suspect my authoring career may not advance too far in the next few hours …

Friday, January 23, 2009


Congratulations from the blogosphere to friend (and blog follower) Mark and his wife Denise on the birth of a baby boy last week. We went by for the second look last night now that they are home from the hospital. From all appearances, the baby looks to be a healthy, handsome young fellow (and so quiet, at least for company - chuckle).

One of the original scenes in “PHAIAKIA” that I ended up rewriting had to do with a baby. Yes, action books can include babies but only slightly. No birthing scenes, please. So, somehow, my proofreaders just didn’t think it was realistic for my hero to have a sword in one hand and a baby in the other. Looking back on it, they are clearly right, but it certainly seemed to flow fine as I rambled out the draft. I won’t mention the other unrealistic baby chapter I had to rewrite for fear of spoiling the book. However, I will hint that babies and water don’t mix. And, to think, it added such tension to the scene …

Okay, all snickering aside, I did readily make the changes. I valued my reader feedback, but also, I wanted a realistic book. Well, realistic as far as a book can be when dealing with immortals and mythical beasts and impossible quests. Besides, after a few sleepless nights, those obstacles might even sound appealing to the father of a new baby. Just kidding (slightly) – LW and I have certainly been enjoying our first year of being parents, and I’m certain our friends will, too.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Linda Seger

In an attempt to better my writing, I’m reading a book called “Creating Unforgettable Characters” by Linda Seger. Linda interviewed all sorts of top authors and screenwriters, including Ron Bass. Ron wrote “Rain Man,” and she walks through his character development process of Charlie in great detail.

CONFESSION – Shamefully, I haven’t ever seen this acclaimed film, but I am learning lots from hearing about it and other character driven works (such as “Murphy Brown” which I never watched. Hey, I did good on other books and films cited).

What is nice about Linda’s book is that she offers all sorts of exercises as you read along. As a result, I’ve been doing all these mental push ups – no wonder I’m worn out this morning! I’ve been learning not just about “Rain Man” but Freud and Jung and so on even to the point of reading about melancholy versus choleric drunks. Yowsers! Friends, be alert – I just might be analyzing you next (my self-assigned homework).

I guess I should chuckle somewhat. Last week I posted on “know thyself.” Apparently, Linda Seger and these others stress that you most know your own foibles and such to fully express your characters in depth. I did get far enough along to decide that of the personality traits discussed, I am a ‘Thinker.’

I think …

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Presidential Inauguration

The inauguration snared all the headlines yesterday, but for some reason I gazed ahead, thinking of presidents and inaugurations and inevitably the authors who will someday pen them into histories. What do I see? The blog. Will a blog (and emails) written today survive cyberspace a hundred years hence and be used in penning a presidential history? Better yet, will a future president be judged based on what he wrote in a blog (or, even worse, commented upon in a blog)? The day is coming. Will you be that blogger?

Future historians will have much to sort out. In the span of a hundred years, history has gone from relying upon paper records to more forms of media than I can list. I prefer both to tackling Herodotus and his contrary histories based on oral tradition. Alas, back to blissfully blogging …

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Useful Old Drafts

I failed to mention yesterday that I finished scanning my 35mm photos. Wahoo. I use ACDSee for a photo organizer. Does anyone use Coral? I’m thinking of switching. Maybe.

The prior day’s ramblings compared blogging to photos (sort of), and it got me to thinking about my old story drafts. I save my story as a different version at least once a week which leaves me with a progression of how PHAIAKIA has evolved since week 1. I went back and perused the initial concept and thoughts for PHAIAKIA.

‘Drastic’ might be a good choice to describe how radically my story has since changed, not to mention my writing style, etc. It’s somewhat humorous because I’m in the outlining stage for my second novel now. I wonder how much of this current outlining effort will someday just be discarded sludge.

Actually, I don’t find the unused ideas a waste. I have to write and brainstorm profusely to sift out a few good ideas. It’s like what I say about taking photos. Take enough of them and one or two are bound to turn out decent. List out enough story plots and so and one of those will stick, too.

Writing is a continuum that evolves with each sitting. Other craftsmen of different trades would probably say the same in regard to their respective efforts. More later as the blogging and the writing and all evolve.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Scanning Photos

One of my projects for the past 3 years or so has been scanning in all my old 35 mm pictures and archiving them onto my computer which is in turn backed up using Mozy. Side note – yes, I have boxes and boxes and albums upon albums. I’m glad though because old photos help you remember where you’ve been and what you’ve done. Take enough pictures regularly and you end up with a visual journal of your entire life.

So I enjoy looking back at all the old photos and reminiscing about the memories. Most are good but some bad. I glance at some of those pictures of me as a kid and realize I’ve come a long way -- even done some neat things.

Isn’t writing similar? Do you ever go back and look at what you’ve written? I’ve only been at this blogging thing for 3 weeks, but I look forward to looking back at these early entries a year from now and seeing how I’ve come in my writing. Like a good photo, they’ll remind me of where I was. Too, like a journal, these posting will serve as little mini-milestones in my journey to getting published. And, hopefully, that will be a good memory. Who knows, it may even be worth a photograph.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Twisting Streamers

Every good family party needs a few streamers, and last night’s 65th birthday celebration for my mother-in-law was no exception. Now, here’s the thing. Too many twists on a streamer look bad. The secret is to tape one side on a wall and then walk to the wall on the room’s other side. Before you tape this final side of the streamer, twist the streamer four or five times. This gives the streamer a nice twirled look (rather than it hanging flat and slovenly).

Random? I think not. I’m outlining Book #2, trying to think of devilish plots to ooh and awe you. Every book needs a couple of surprises in it. But, there’s such a thing as overdoing it. An over-abundance of twists and the story loses its focus, becoming so convoluted that you lose the reader. It’s like twisting a streamer one time too many. A few twists help things but give one too many and all you have is a knotted mess.

And, no, I didn’t do the streamers for the party. I did, however, eat lots of cake. Time to give that outline some more thought and perhaps a final twist.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Thank goodness it’s the weekend! LW and I played dominos last night with my folks. The thing about Mexican Train is that at the start of the game you gather up all your dominos, put them in sequence and wait for your turn to come so that you can neatly lay them out one after the other in perfect sequence. The accountant in me loves this orderly little pattern.

Of course, it never quite works out that way. The surprises make the game, naturally. It seems so simple. Someone plays a 6-4. You think that when it’s your turn, you’ll play your 4-2 or 4-5. But, what happens? The antagonistic neighbor to your right plays first and disrupts your sequencing. Misfortune takes you and you end up having to draw (and draw and draw …).

The unexpected twist in a story can be as agonizing to a reader. The sudden defeat just when a victory seemed near for the hero, the heroine sent on a new and even more arduous journey, a sidekick disappearing – all these surprise setbacks in a book ‘upset’ the reader. This is good, however, as it ups the ante. Their commitment increases, and subconsciously, the reader places a greater interest in a book’s outcome. That hero or heroine or sidekick has to make it and triumph over the villain. They know that perfect ending will come, and they are waiting for it.
Now, I never got to play that 11 domino that I wanted to, despite thinking for certain I’d get to go out. I was instead left hanging. Oh, the agony of defeat! Authors, make sure you give your reader the finale they want. And, if your spouse has an 11, let him play it.
Congratulations, LW, on winning last night's domino game.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Know Thyself

The columns in the photo above are the remnants of Apollo’s temple at Delphi in Greece. Literary agent Nathan Bransford asked his blog following yesterday to share the hardest part about being a writer. Last I checked, the post had close to 300 comments!

Something tells me that response is more than Nathan would have generated had he asked what is easy about writing. Look, it’s easy to focus on what’s hard, not just in writing, but life in general. Everyone can readily bemoan life’s difficulties, particularly their own. I’m no different, so I’ll try to keep my grumblings to a minimum.

Ah, I digress. I responded to Nathan that the most difficult part of being an author was to “know thyself.” Which, brings me back to the photo I took of Apollo’s temple. The Delphi Oracle, the voice of the immortal Apollo, dwelt there, giving out sacred wisdom and the divine whisperings of the gods. Supposedly, carved upon Apollo’s temple walls were three sacred sayings. One of these? “Know Thyself.”

Every author writes with a different style utilizing unique characters and settings and conveying their own experiences. Some authors are known for their vivid characters. Others made their fortune by having detailed descriptions of places or historic events.

The 300 of us that responded to Nathan’s blog identified what is hard for us. Each offered a different struggle. Good – we’ve identified our weakness. Every author also has certain strengths. The good writer knows his strong point and utilizes it to his/her advantage. He/she works around known weaknesses to accommodate shortcomings.

Here’s my point: if you don’t know your strengths or weaknesses as a writer, you cannot: (1) take advantage of your best skills and (2) hide your faults.

Know thyself.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How I Buy Books

The books I ordered online came (finally) while I was out of town last week. I certainly loved all the gifts I received for Christmas, but a couple of my favorites were 2 bookstore gift cards! I must have scanned through all the bargain bins countless times online looking to maximize my purchase (yes, as an accountant, I frequently lapse into quantity over quality).

At last, I settled in on a mix of classics and new. I read the classics to become well-rounded and a better writer. New books are reserved for fun, or in one particular instance – the support of a new author! No, it is not me.

Side tangent -- I love Barrie Summy’s blog and so to support her, I purchased her new book, “I So Don’t Do Mysteries”, which came out back in December. Now, please don’t tell anyone, but the age market is middle school girls. In honor of Barrie, however, I bought it and have already finished reading her debut novel. Barrie conveys a very unique, well-written voice. If you’re a new author, you should definitely go read her blog. Regardless of the blog, I recommend you request the enjoyable “I So Don’t Do Mysteries” at your local (or online) bookstore.

Anyhow, back to online book shopping– I was reminded in my book search that books are expensive, now more than ever. New hardbacks cost you $20 and a paperback at least $8. Having a limited budget (err ..., uh ..., 2 gift cards totaling $60), I could only get a few books. I started by using a wish list feature and ended up with over $200!! That was not going to work. I had to narrow it down. How?

This is the important part – I went with a few books that I thought would:
1. Make me a better writer for having read
2. A more well-educated person
3. I went with other books that I thought would teach me about ancient history (my realm of interest)
4. I chose a couple of novels that I thought I would enjoy.

Goodness, does everyone go through this? Absolutely. It doesn’t discourage me, but it does make me realize how important it is to provide a quality product and make it as enticing as possible. What is your criteria when you go looking for a book? Do you buy online, at a local bookstore, or at a chain? Or, do you just borrow from the public library?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Romeo & Juliet"

I’ll return “Romeo and Juliet” to the public library (along with Shelley) later today. Shakespeare has quite a way with words, doesn’t he? People and places come alive without the use of a single description. His plays record only dialogue, and yet, I sit there reading, growing more and more attached to the characters. The plot draws me in, too. The guy knows what he is doing.

Prospective authors read here the following advice all the time – don’t spend paragraphs describing your character or sentence upon sentence setting up what your character is about to say. The characters should speak for themselves. Dialogue seems like an easy enough thing. We all speak, right?

His simplicity makes Shakespeare so great. Polonius says it best in “Hamlet” – “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Granted, Polonius rambles inestimably. I ramble, don’t I? Ah, but what blog doesn’t? Anyway, Shakespeare presents a simple enough tale within “Romeo and Juliet”, but with every subsequent glance, I always discover something new and profound. He never fails to extract from his characters the very basest of human frailties and truths. No wonder critics have written of his genius for four centuries.

I do find that reading Shakespeare has helped me focus my characters. If you’re writing a book, study Shakespeare’s characterizations. Do you agree that the simplistic manner in which Shakespeare presents his characters is his chief strength?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Outlining Strategy

Previously, my work on Book #2 had been limited to research. Now comes the fun part. I’m continuing the mapping process that I started last week. Here’s my methodology that I’ll be using:

1. Using bullet points in Word, I write as brief a blurb as possible for each potential scene. The story is already in my head, so at this point I am listing out what I know.

2. From the above, I may only have a few loose, unconnected points. I now consider additional scenes. My objective isn’t at this point to come away with a complete story but to provide an ample enough framework to understand what my characters face.

3. Stop outlining and consider my characters, writing as much on each major character (no minor ones at this point) as possible. Incidentally, while I’m thinking on it, I highly recommend Elizabeth George’s book on writing.

4. Return to outlining to ensure that I have the customary 4 arcs (check out Carolyn Wheat’s book, “How to Write Killer Fiction” for some great tips on the 4 arcs).

5. Write the preliminary draft for the hook I’ll use to pitch my book when submitting its query letter.

6. Return to outlining until I feel I’ve a cohesive story.

7. Compose a storyboard where I break out the details for each scene.

The above represents my strategy for getting ready to write Book #2. I’ll go into some of the points in more depth in the days to come as I come to those points. Hopefully I’ll finish up with stage 3 by the end of this week. I’m very eager to get through the outlining stage and onto writing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mask of Agamemnon

I snapped the above photo at the National Museum in Athens. Supposedly, it's the golden death mask worn by Agamemnon. An archaeologist (Schliemann) found it in Mycenae, but really, who's to say who this is. So much of what we rely on in history was defined by educated guesses. What's that scientific word? Oh yeah, hypothesis. Over time though, the lines blur. Guesses turn to fact. Myths and stories transform into truth.

I suppose that is one reason I find ancient Greece so fascinating. Many of its old stories (and certainly its myths) are probably not true, but that is what makes it fun to come in and add to an unfinished storyline. I did this with "PHAIAKIA". I'll do it with others, too. Dan Brown did well taking early church history and changing it ("DaVinci Code"). Brown pretends that his work stems from truth (probably to help sell books), but I make no such pretense when tackling the Greek classics.

You know what is great? Neither did the ancient Greeks and Romans. When Virgil wrote the "Aeneid" for Augustus and filled Rome's history with lineage back to Troy, he told a sweeping tale and made use of the old stories. The educated of that time certainly knew it to be nothing more than a tale, though its roots probably came from some old campfire tale told long before Virgil. Same for Homer and so on ... My point is that the Greek myths were made to be enjoyed and that for 3,000 years mankind has been re-telling these stories. Add me to the list -- Virgil, Ovid, ... D.A. Riser. Go ahead, rewrite one yourself and add your name. Granted, this is likely the only time you'll see my name penned beside those great poets of old, but the concept is the same.

Not interested in re-writing or adding onto the Greek myths? I still think they are worth studying as you can utilize many of their themes and stories for your own work. Does anyone find a particular Greek myth or play that they've made use of? For me, in "PHAIAKIA", it's Homer's "Odyssey."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Clue - Branding

I played the Harry Potter Clue game earlier tonight. If you like the regular Clue, you’ll love this version as it adds a few extra wrinkles such as moving passageways and Hogwartz House Points. I don’t own it but some friends do. Why did they buy it? Well, they’re fans of both Harry and Clue, but the term that came to my mind was “branding.”

They wanted it because it was, ah-ha, Clue and Harry Potter. Branding is important for prospective authors to consider. It’s not that you get pigeonholed, stereotyped, etc., but well, you do. Your first work defines you in the industry and to your readers. As I look to write more books, I recognize that I want to build an authoring ‘brand’ within a certain genre. My genre is historical fantasy as I plan on writing more and more novels based on the characters in Greek mythology. Hopefully, over the years, I’ll build a loyal following of folks who like the way I tell the story and my ‘type’ of settings and so on. This will be the D.A. Riser brand.

Branding is a conscious decision, and one that demands some degree of consistency from book to book. As fun or enticing as it might be down the road for me to try doing a mystery set in London in 1816, I’ll probably leave that for someone else. Branding.

Incidentally, I lost both games of Clue. I hope that doesn’t brand me as a loser. Does coming close count in Clue?

To what level do you take your branding? Genre, storyline, characters – how consistent with these types do you try to be from story to story?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Bob Newhart & Harriet the Spy

You ever go somewhere with a friend, encounter somebody peculiar, and then make the comment, ‘that guy sure is a character’? Who knows, you may say that about your friends or family. Maybe they say that about you. What a character!

I drove back from Austin yesterday with a co-worker, Toni. We stopped at a local diner off the interstate and encountered the spitting image of Bob Newhart (an actor), complete with mannerisms. ‘Bob’ was actually the proprietor, a retired lawyer. If pseudo-Bob hadn’t had so many stories about Texas, I’d have insisted it was him. I can still hear Bob Newhart’s voice in my head this morning. Whatever. You’ll probably identify with this next cliché as it fits – he was a ‘bigger than life’ figure.

It made me think if I had any characters like that in my book. Characters so full of life and identifiable that we immediately label them, as well, uhh … characters! I won’t go into what I think makes a good character today, but I’m sure you’d agree with me that we know one when we see one. Readers know one when they read a novel, too. I’m sure all sorts of lovable (and hated) fictional characters come to mind. If you can think of a good one, post it in the comments for us.

Here’s a challenge – start a ‘character’ journal. If you meet one of these folks, take time later that day to try and capture their essence on paper. It’s an exercise that I’m going to work through this year as I try to become better at making characterizations. Oh, and don’t be a “Harriet the Spy” and characterize your family and friends (a little friendly advice – it could backfire). If anyone else has any other good exercises for learning how to characterize characters, post a comment for us.

Have a good weekend!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Hitchcock & Suspense

I’m enjoying Michael Crighton’s “Andromeda Strain.” One thing I’ve noticed is that Crighton walks a good balance between telling me the outcome versus keeping me in the dark. Somewhere along these lines is how an author builds suspense and makes a story into a page-turning thriller.

Crighton gives me just enough to bait me on into the next section, but I never quite know enough to know what happens at the end. He hints of a catastrophic ending, but I don’t know what that ending will be. I keep reading to see how it will unfold.

As I work on my next story (it’s a secret – for now), I am trying to take a quasi-familiar Greek tale and make it a compelling read. It seems that the less I give in the opening, the more of a draw it will be for sucking my reader into the story.

On the other hand, Alfred Hitchcock, the acknowledged master of suspense believed in the ‘bomb theory.’ Nobody would think three men sitting around the table talking baseball could fill an entire scene (or, chapter) in a suspenseful manner, right? Certainly the conversation isn’t intriguing. Unless, Hitchcock first introduces to the audience that a ticking time bomb under that very table will explode in five minutes. Now, we practically yell for the men around the table to run. How could they be calmly sitting there playing cards??? Suspense.

Hitchcock’s technique is to tell you what is about to happen (or could happen) and then you let you fear and sweat out that imminent occurrence. Although he told me something catastrophic will occur. Michael Crighton, in “Andromeda Strain,” seems to be keeping everything about it rather vague. Incidentally, James Rollins perfectly executes this technique in his thriller, “Black Order.”

What a decision -- how many details do I give the reader upfront? This could be looked at different ways, but simply by placing a book in a certain genre, authors practice this to some degree. If I buy a horror book, I anticipate something bad and scary to happen. The more I think on it, the more degrees of this that I see. Back to Rollins -- I buy one of his books, and I know that Sigma Force and Commander Pierce will win in the end. Yet, I’m incredibly drawn to find out how they’ll do it.

It makes me realize that all sorts of subtle ways exist to set up the mystique of my story and to entice the reader to want to plunge into my book. I’ll likely make use of both techniques. At some points, I’ll be particularly vague but in other instances, the audience is going to know, and because they know, they are going to be in suspense. I’ve heard it said that the less you can give, the better your story will be. Prolong offering those details until the last possible moment they can be revealed. Easier said than done, right?

Can you think of some good examples of stories that made use of withholding information to create suspense? What about some that gave information to create suspense?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Barrie Summy's Book Review

I volunteered to do my first online blog book review. New author, Barrie Summy, whose personable blog I happen to love, asked if anyone wanted to join in her a monthly posting where we link up reviews. The reading part won’t be a problem. I just wonder what book should I read? Hmm … any suggestions? Barry’s new book, “I So Don’t Do Mysteries” just came out. Maybe I’ll review it (although, in doing so, I might be put to shame by the middle-schoolers that will likely choose it as well – see Barry’s 1/7/09 blog for details).

Do you rely on reviews when buying a book? It is certainly something for a new author to consider. I mean, ultimately, authors are trying to convince someone to part with $10 for their product, and a good review helps. I know I always peruse the online comments posted on books that I’m interested in, if (and, I bet you agree with me on this) I haven’t had someone I know recommend the book to me. What do you rely upon when looking for a new book?

Reviews appear to go a long way in building the success / failure of a book. If you agree, email Barry and agree to have your blog join her in doing monthly book reviews. I think I am right in saying that the reviews will post the first Wednesday of every month.

A big shout of thanks out to Barry by the way for commenting on some of my earlier blog entries. I'd love to hear from others as you have thoughts.

I'm still in Austin at the hotel so I best run -- my first meeting is in 30 minutes! Yikes!!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reading Shelley

I made it to Austin okay yesterday, and as evidenced, I found internet connectivity (for a small fee). I'm here for work and have just made it back to my hotel room for the night. I'm taking a second to blog (obviously), but before I turn in tonight, I'll do some reading.

Finding times to read can be a challenge, but I’m committed to always be reading, a practice I let fall aside during college. No, I don’t count college textbooks as reading. Reading is for fun. Wait, that is not entirely true. I am actually battling through a complete volume of Percy Shelley’s poetry right now in hopes of learning how to view the world differently.

Whether it is a falling leaf, an ocean wave, or something as mundane as a street light, poets animate what they see. I want to provide a degree of that in my writing.

Reading a poet helps me with my vocabulary, too. That, and my every other thought, tends to be seeing a sunrise or feeling the wind. To tell the truth, I love Shelley’s language but I get lost in his longer works. Please let me know if you understand “The Revolt of Islam”. Has anyone else read any poetry lately? Do you think it helps your writing?

Last month (yes, I've been reading Shelley awhile), I felt so inspired by Shelley's overly descriptive prose, I went back to "PHAIAKIA" and added all sorts of adjectives to my one scary scene. The chapter sounded okay this last proofing; however, I have a sneaking suspicion the scene may now be guilty of' over-writing.'

No more writing tonight. 'Nuff said. I'm going to read Crighton's "Andromeda Strain" and then get a little shut eye. Poetry? I, uh ..., accidentally left Shelley at home.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

My First Writing Inspiration

Yesterday marked my first day back at work after a nice, weeklong Christmas vacation. I won't bemoan how busy I was as I'm sure you experienced the same 'post-break' surge. On with the blog …

DeWayne, one of my friends from high school, intended to visit LW and I last night at our house. Alas, LW is sick. DeWayne returns to Japan on Thursday so this had offered a last chance to catch up. We instead have implemented "Contingency Plan #1" (aka, IHOP) and will meet there in a few minutes at 6:45 this morning. Yes, DeWayne's a great sport for humoring me as I'm a notorious early 'riser'. I am certain we will likely reminisce about our travels from our younger days – all the aches and pains (a frequent theme on my backpacking exploits) and things seen and experienced, etc.

Incidentally, the columned building on this blog's header came from a photo I snapped on a trip to Greece, and the background of the two men fighting on is a close up of a frieze that was on the Parthenon.

I've had the blessing of seeing quite a few places, and one habit I've always had is journaling what I see. While friends fell asleep exhausted, I always felt compelled to stay up chronicling the day's hardships (despite being a lousy night owl). Most of those accounts wouldn't interest anyone but family and those there, but I'm glad I put forth the effort as those trips are really where my desire for writing first awakened.

Looking back on it, all that journaling demonstrated my need to write. "Writer's write." I appreciate this creed more every day. When did you first realize you needed to write?

I'm out for now. I leave for Austin later this morning for work and won't be back until Friday. I'll blog if I can find a connection at the hotel where we'll be staying.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Wiggles

We celebrated my niece's ninth birthday yesterday with the family. As we ate cake, somehow someone remarked something about the Wiggles and their unbelievable success. If you've missed seeing them on TV, this traveling group of 4 Australian guys has catered to crowds of pre-schoolers for the past 17 years. #2 son isn't old enough yet to be interested in them and #1 son is the dog, so I haven't been overly exposed to the Wiggles, but apparently they are immensely popular.

A writer can learn a great deal from considering the Wiggles. No, I'm not talking about starting a band called the Squirmers. The Wiggles rewrote 'the book' on how to entertain kids. As I think about that in regard to my writing, it reminds me not to limit myself to what others say a successful adult book has to look like. It's true that a good vampire or wizard story sells well for YA fantasy these days, but what's the next new thing? Some author may already be writing it. I might be writing it. Regardless, I'm not going to limit myself to what others are doing (although, I will keep apprised of current trends).

For me, ancient Greece already teems with scores of untold stories, tales just waiting to be retold in a new voice. You'll probably laugh at hearing me say this, but my overall personal writing goal is to make myself the 'grandfather of the Greek genre'. Establishing a new genre (similar to the way westerns are considered, only ... different) will take a prolific writing career and a little divine intervention, but a writer has to have a lofty goal if he wants to match the success of the Wiggles.

I feel very scholarly having blogged on Wiggles. Seriously, what other blog alternates between the merits of Greek mythology and Wiggles? Ah-hem, don't answer. I'm going now. Feel free to comment on the genius of a Wiggle.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Donuts & Rock Stars

I went down to the donut shop this morning to get LW (Lovely Wife) a jelly-filled donut, and well, me an apple fritter and a coffee. Donut shop owners are a hard-working bunch that put in long, oddball hours. So, in addition to saluting the local donut shop lady, Sue, today, I would like to suggest that this world is filled with hard-working folks. Granted, it’s the bad, lazy bums that often get the press (granted, that’s true for just about everything).

Now, the donut shop biz isn’t the only cut throat industry out there. Every aspect of life is competitive, including getting a book published. I tend to think it’s akin to becoming a rock star. Plenty of wannabes sing pretty songs but only a few become lucky enough to get heard on the radio. While it’s easy to say some singers don’t have talent, you have to admit that they did something right. Right? Likely enough, making it big (in authoring or anything) comes down to being in the right spot at the right time, knowing someone, or perseverance, which is my personal favorite.

Since starting my writing endeavor, I have read profusely a litany of blogs, books, and whatever else on authoring. Most all of the agents and authors will tell you – getting published comes down to perseverance. Talent only gives you a head start.

So, if you’re a fellow author, keep writing. Put in your time and work hard. Oh, and go get a donut.

SIDE NOTE – the history of the donut is a hotly disputed topic. Did you know that some theorize Native Americans in the southwest US invented the donut? For other claims, go to Mr.

SIDE, SIDE NOTE – I’ve finished my coffee and apple fritter. Time for church - where they sometimes have donuts …

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Map Out Your Attic Floor

I hope you had a good Saturday. I floored the attic today making use of my handy Ryobi saw to chew through piece after piece of 4 x 8 plywood sheets. Side note, I am exhausted, and I used an electric saw! Imagine, if I had hand-sawed all of that. Yes, I probably would lack the strength to blog.

Okay, so I am going somewhere with all this. The key to my flooring effort was to first spend time making a mapping of the attic, which I did. It got me to thinking that the same thing is true with story writing. Whenever I sit down to do a chapter, the most important minutes aren’t the ones where I contemplate what verb to use. No, the critical moment comes before I even begin – the planning, of course!

Whether it is an entire story, a chapter, or a paragraph, I still try to first map out what I want said. Doing this ensures the following:

(1) Build suspense, if needed
(2) Peak at the right moment
(3) Not give away too much information too early
(4) Avoid meaningless ramble and repetition

Hmm … before I begin to ramble, I best finish up. I am sure there are more benefits but those are the ones that come to mind. What about you? Do you plan? If so, what are the benefits that you see?

Deucalion & Noah

I won’t mention anything further about the Cotton Bowl , but the answer to yesterday’s trivia question is Deucalion. You can read a great summary of Deucalion and the flood on Carlos Parada’s comprehensive Greek Mythology Link Website. Deucalion’s story is shockingly similar to the account of Noah in Genesis (or, type “Noah and Deucalion” on Google - you'll find even more ancient texts describing the great flood).

Friday, January 2, 2009

Robert Graves

If Phaiakia isn’t a familiar name to you, don’t worry. According to Robert Gates’ nifty introduction to his Greek Myths books, the Catholic Church brought the Greek and Latin classics to Great Britain as part of their university system and that as a result, all the great English literature up into the 20th century reference and make use of Greek/Latin mythology. Basically, he tells us that everyone used to know all the old Greek tales. Mr. Graves then notes that an educated person today is no longer expected to know who Deucalion, Pelops or Antigone is.

I would expand Graves’ argument to encompass not only Great Britain but all of western civilization and then add that I see the same thing happening to Biblical references / stories in 21st century literature. Do you agree? I say all to say that I hope through this blog and my stories to bring to light some of the forgotten tales. You’ll enjoy reading PHAIAKIA and learning about so many of the wonderful Greek characters that have been neglected of late.

Time to watch the Cotton Bowl and cheer for my Texas Tech Red Raiders! Tomorrow I’ll let you know what Biblical story coincides with Deucalion.

Greek Pronunciation

As I have certainly never been considered an expert on pronunciation, I get a chuckle out of people asking me how to pronounce PHAIAKIA, the title for my story. I personally like saying it as” fie-key-uh”. However, if you want the actual Greek pronunciation, check out the handy Mythology Glossary and Pronunciation Guide put out by UNC Greensboro. It lists all the Greek heroes and places and verbally pronounces them for you.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


One of my goals for 2009 is to start a blog to help get the news out about the book I’ve written, PHAIAKIA. I am, therefore, very happy to introduce you to the first installment of … … The Writing Greek, a modest blog chronicling my own personal writing ‘odyssey.’

For those that don’t know, I have written the first in what I intend to be a series of novels that take place at the onset of the Greek Dark Age (circa 1100 BC). There will be plenty of time to share more about PHAIAKIA on the blog, but in short, I based it off the Phaiakians that help Odysseus in Books VI – XIII of Homer’s Odyssey. I don’t intend to inundate you with just details about the book, which incidentally, is very exciting. I’ll also fill you in on my struggles as a writer and divulge what I am learning each day and how I am endeavoring to become a better writer. A blog definitely offers accountability toward that end, that I assure you.

For those new to blogging, link to the blog by copying the RSS link into your blog reader (doing so keeps you updated without having to daily visit the website). If that doesn’t make sense, feel free to email me if you have any troubles.

And, the last of the last, please share your comments with me daily. I love encouragement and look forward to hearing from you. Tell anyone interested in ancient Greece, books, or writing to come this way.