Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How to Write a Page-Turner

I just finished my new novel titled The Abused. I also received feedback from my focus group of early readers. Responses were all extremely positive with the common comment being “I couldn’t stop reading it.”

I get asked all of the time, “How do I write a page-turner?” My answer may sound simple, but it’s not easy to do. The main ingredient to writing a page-turner is to create constant intrigue. Your reader must be interested and intrigued enough to want to keep reading.

How do you create intrigue?

Tip #1: Show don’t tell. Last night I read a chapter from The Abused. “I love the way you built up the tension. How did you do it?” So let me give you the set up scene from the book…

On this outing, Frank was in his usual laid-back mood. Jonesy had gotten up early ready to jog. They were standing in front of the morning fire watching the gray tin coffee pot that sat on the grill begin to bubble up. Jonesy wore a green jogging suit, and Frank had on a woolen shirt with Levi’s. He stood with his hands in his pockets fighting off the morning chill.
“So, what’s the plan my man,” asked Frank.
“Do you always have to say that?”
“Christ Frank you sound like a moron.”
“Thanks!” chuckled Frank.
The insult never bothered Frank. He knew Jonesy was chiding him.
“I’m taking a run. How bout you?”
Frank laughed, “Um no.”
“Fuck Frank you’re going to fall over some day from laziness and too much cholesterol.”
Frank grabbed the iron skillet and held up the eggs, “Tell you what! You take your damn jog and by the time you get back breakfast will be ready. That is if I don’t die of a heart attack.”
“Eh, fuck you!” said Jonesy as he turned to jog off.
“See you later Lucy,” called Frank.
Jonesy held up his middle finger and flipped off Frank, who just laughed again. The morning rolled on, and Frank began to scramble eggs. He set the bacon on the grill. BBQ bacon tasted the best. Then he began making hash browns from the frozen packs where the potatoes were already squared off. He didn’t like frozen hash browns as much as the real thing but when camping and having limited storage space, he would settle for it.
He had just sat down for a sip of coffee when campers started gathering at the edge of the trailhead. A lot of tittering and talk was going on. Frank’s “Spidey sense” went up. He wondered what was going on. People seemed distressed. A woman walked past, and Frank stood up.
“What’s going on?”
The woman shook her head. “Some guy fell off the trail.”
Frank became alarmed. Fear simmered inside of him like the coffee beginning to brew. He wasn’t sure if he should go look or just blow it off. “No way,” he thought. Anxiety grew in him like multiplying bacteria. He slowly started to make his way toward the crowd. People were talking. He heard one man say, “Yeah, he’s like crushed.” Now Frank felt even more concerned. Crushed? That didn’t sound good at all.
Finally, riding on a wave of sheer panic, Frank got to the edge and could see down. As his eyes focused on the mangled body below, he knew … within a second he turned and vomited on the dirt. Jonesy was dead.
His best friend and companion of years – dead and mangled on a pile of earth and rocks next to the sea.

Notice what I highlighted. I’m “showing” what is going on and not just saying “Jonesy fell off a cliff.” The build up … suspecting something is amiss (see red highlight). The tension conveyed through metaphor. Fear is simmering. Anxiety growing … what is happening? Frank moves toward the answer. Panic is consuming him. Crushed! Someone is crushed! Frank gets his answer.

Now a new writer who doesn’t understand the build up and tension would go straight for it – Jonesy died. This approach would read like this:

People stirred and were talking. Frank got curious. He wondered what was going on. He walks toward the crowd and peers over the ledge – Jonesy’s body is at the bottom. He’s dead.

No tension and no intrigue and no curiosity piqued. The reader is served up the answer right away. Try and think of each and every scene you write much like life. You are rarely given answers. You go through experiences to get answers. Describe what is happening before the answer arrives. Put your curiosity in the readers’ minds. Show it like you would see it unfold on a movie screen. When I write I actually see my story unfolding in my mind’s eye. I use my words to walk the reader through the experience.

I provide literary coaching and editorial services. If you would like me to critique or provide analysis of your manuscript, contact me at or call 916-300-8012. I will gladly discuss your project needs and how to get your book out of your head and onto paper.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Comment on HBO's WestWorld

I've been watching the new HBO series WestWorld and have found its storytelling methods rather intriguing. What makes this series very unique is the dual worlds in which the stories are unfolding. You have the "Park" world that is a throwback to old westerns and gun slinging and then you have the science fiction of the engineers behind the Park.

The questions posed in the science fiction story line come out in the "hosts" who exist in the Park. The primary theme has to do with questions related to consciousness. While the hosts are grappling with their memories returning (and these memories have to do with the brutality and abuse the robots suffer at the hands of the guests), the guests are dealing with questions about identity and self. The intellectual capital in this series is truly fascinating. Are you a hero or a villain? Do the hosts want revenge and to decide upon their own story lines. Beneath all of this subterfuge is the corporate agenda for the park.

Each layer and question posed is woven exquisitely together. The different worlds' plots and story lines fused together into a wonderful mental challenge for the audience. Can a human fall in love with a robot? Can a robot develop consciousness? Is it really acceptable to brutalize robots because we think of them as objects without humanity? Is it okay to do something just because you can? In WestWorld standards of justice and decency are reduced down to sport and vacation fun. Yet a deeper meaning exists beneath all of these fun and games.

I can't wait to find out what Arnold's grand maze is really about. The mental jousting between Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Robert Ford and Bernard is worth the watch alone. I enjoy a show that makes you think -- and WestWorld definitely makes you think.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Great "Editorial" Mystery

I just finished the final edit on my new novel The Abused. Thanks to DB Stearns for lending a hand on this project. Even given his adept input and fixes, I still found numerous mistakes, which just goes to show even the editor needs an editor. I always find it a reflection of either enormous egos or just inexperience when people contact me to publish their books and strongly say, "It doesn't need to be edited. My (fill in the blank with "English" professor, librarian, or best friend who is obsessed with grammar) edited it. It's fine.
These folks either don't understand that I'm 200 percent positive it won't be fine or they just don't want to make the necessary investment to really make it fine. Once I worked with an author who absolutely insisted every mistake had been caught. I challenged her and said, "I promise you there are mistakes. It has absolutely nothing to do with editorial prowess." She still challenged me, and I said, "Okay, I will go through your first two chapters and turn on Microsoft tracking. Once you see the mistakes I find you will gladly hire me." I did edit those first two chapters and found dozens of errors to the author's utter chagrin. She hired me though and her book even scrubbed with hardcore detergent still had a few mistakes. Thus, I have a nugget of wisdom and reality for you.
Pour 50,000 black jellybeans on a white sheet of paper. Now go find the "belly-flops".
I love to use that analogy because inevitably I watch people's eyes light up with a-ha. The perfectionists out there will cry foul to my assertion, but it's just what I call a "literary reality". The human eye is a tricky thing. I can't tell you how many times I have been absolutely certain I saw "that word" - a word completely absent from the sentence. What I'm trying to say is don't go crazy trying to either be a literary "perfectionist" or insisting your librarian knows best. It's just not how it works. Just like a machine is fallible and breaks down, so does a human being.
Editing involves many different levels. Have you ever looked at a masthead, say, on a magazine? You have the editor-in-chief, executive editor, editor, managing editor, copy editor, editorial assistant, and a few other miscellaneous titles including the one I smile about - Chief Storyteller. Each of these positions plays an important role in the publication process. Here is a nugget: just because a person has the title "editor" next to his or her name doesn't mean he or she actually touches copy. How's that for a nice surprise? For example, most managing editors don't touch copy at all. Their jobs involve moving the final document to completion more like a project manager.
Another nugget: in my opinion, the copy editor has one of the hardest jobs on the masthead but is the least appreciated. The copy editor is the real grammarian of the crew. Most excellent copy editors can recite Strunk and White or AP Style rules like it's the Pledge of Allegiance - only more like 50,000 words longer. Excellent copy editors take great pride in knowing every grammar rule and can fully explain its use. Our former copy editor cracked me up. She would argue why those "non-essential clauses" were superfluous. I would venture to say the copy editor is the traditional "geek" on the team. I will also say I want that geek around when I've got that puzzling grammar question that the experts don't seem to agree upon.
In my long career, I've held every position on the masthead. The reason I ended up as a publisher and not an editor in general is because I have the business expertise, too. My degrees in public relations and English are a powerful combination for running a publication. I like to call it the "perfect storm" of skills when it comes to publishing. Fifty percent of this job requires writing and editing skills and the other 50 percent requires marketing and PR skills. Thus, I am the ideal person to hire to publish and promote your book or business.
I hope you are now utterly thrilled to be able to ask your friends, "Do you know the difference between a managing editor and copy editor?" They will be so impressed with your acumen and knowledge. Just tell them this Friend-Os sent you! Now go get a dictionary and read it cover to cover - it's actually pretty interesting.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Traditionally Published Book Doesn't Make it Great

Now onto other topics ... today's topic is what I'm going to call "Traditional Publishing Snobbery" AKA as TPS. I've run into it my entire career and I wanted to refute why it's nothing more than elitist misconceptions driven by old school ideas.
Listening to TPS from unpublished authors who think they know everything is akin to listening to your 12-year-old lecture you about relationships and marriage LOL (yes, my daughter recently shared her "insights" on marriage). Many TPSnobs (not snobbery) hold the ancient reader misconception that traditional publishing act as a gateway to production of "great" literature. If you're not traditionally published then your book must not be any good. This fallacy is just that - a false truth.
Let me explain. Foremost, the top six traditional publishers are businesses, well, actually corporations. What are corporation designed to do? Make money. Traditional publishers like any corporation have to make money to stay in business. Money making is not necessarily conducive to the creation of great literary genius. In fact, what most traditional publishers want to see is a platform (AKA following). When an author brings what in many circles is considered a "sure thing" they are more likely to have their books acquired.
Does any of that sound like it has anything to do with quality? No. So when someone peers down his or her nose at self-published authors and act as though their work isn't legit then these TPSnobs are showing their ignorance. While some of you may have really enjoyed books like 50 Shades of Grey, I have to tell you something: it's not a work of literary genius. In fact that book panders to our most prurient interests vs. high-brow literary attractions. Did it make money? You betcha - lots of cash!
Do you believe any of these celebrity writers are genius literary pros? No? Well, bring a name and a following to the table and traditional publishers will scoop it up. Why? It's a winning, almost risk-free proposition. Like I said, these big corporations have one primary directive, make money. They don't have the leeway, time or resources to gamble on unknowns. Does that mean your book isn't worth anything? It's poorly written? No, it means you're an unknown quantity that a major corporation can't take a gamble on and risk losing thousands of dollars.
In the meantime, self-publishing vehicles do indeed promote an open playing field and the possibility of something new and genius being published. Let me also ask you: do you think that once an author builds aforementioned following a traditional publisher will turn him or her away based on writing ability? The answer is still no. Money is money is money. A sure bet gets published. A genius piece of literary magic without a name or proven track record doesn't get the same opportunity.
The good news is that self-publishing or hybrid publishing opens a wider playing field. Companies like mine give new and emerging authors the actual chance to make it without the barriers of traditional publishing. Not all literature or nonfiction is designed strictly to become a best seller. Some authors  want the opportunity to get their stories and voices out into the world. Other authors want their books to help make them subject matter experts and give them a platform from which to speak. And some other authors want a book to support their businesses.
Does this make those books bad? Does this make these books any less legitimate? Does self-publishing = poorly written? The answer is concretely no. So, next time you run into a TPSnob just give him or her a dose of reality from a grown-up author (not a 12-year-old, self-proclaimed but inexperienced expert).