Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work I Go

Disney Bldg 007Are you ready for some news?

This is probably the hardest post I’ve ever had to write, but as of Monday, I’ve gone back to “work.” Like Jack Sparrow, I’ve searched the oceans for treasure and found a job. Yes, most people would be super-excited about started a new job. I mean I am, but at the same time, I’m really disappointed that my writing career is screeching to halt. (BTW I’ve sprinkled clues at to my new employer throughout this post).

This doesn’t mean my dream of being a published writer is over. I have not LOST.

This is my plan.

Write on the bus. Read on the bus. Give up a couple iPhone games I love. Give up at least 1 of the 3 writing groups I’m in. Give up watching a bunch of TV shows I like. Give up going to the gym (kinda was forced to give this up anyways due to ankle issues).

What I’m not giving up:

  • My dream of being a published writer with multiple published novels.
  • The wonderful world of NaNoWriMo (won twice while working full-time)
  • Steam Palace. I will publish this one way or another.

Give up yet on my new employer? Well it’s a small world after all, so keep your mouse ears on.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Couple New Posts over on The Writerunner!

Writing a Script – I write a script for a scene from Steam Palace. Scripting requires a different viewpoint on what makes a good scene.

Interjections! Excitement! Emotion! – I have an epiphany about using emotion to drive a scene.

Don’t forget to add The Writerunner to your subscriptions and/or Google Friend Connect!

Monday, March 14, 2011



301_redirectAs of today, all new writing content on has moved to The WriteRunner (

Please update your links and subscriptions accordingly!

I’ll still post links to new content here for a while.

Not sure what I’m going to do with this blog, but I’ll probably post things dealing with workouts, the Mariners, skiing (or the lack thereof), family, political opinion (if I’m brave enough), and life in general.

Thank you so much for your patronage of this site, your feedback and involvement has been invaluable!

Over the next couple weeks I’m going to re-do the layout of this site into a new format.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Movie Sign!

Just want to start out by saying that our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan today as they deal with the earthquake and tsunami that hit them. Japanese popular culture seems riveted with the concept of disaster but no one actually wants it to happen. Please consider a donation to the Red Cross.

Movie Sign!

gamera11I’ve been going ahead with the idea of writing a movie script for the History Story I’m working on. I have a couple reasons for this:

  1. I feel that this is really a visual story with movement and action. It’s something that falls well into the movie format.
  2. Writing a novel may take more time than I’m willing to spend on the project.
  3. A lot of people have commented that my style is a bit “cinematic” so why not put it to the test? Probably not the greatest reason but it’s given my something to think about.
  4. The potential upside is greater.

One of the things I’ve done is read the scripting book “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. One of the exercises he suggests (among others) is to plot movies on a sheet of paper (a “beat sheet”) which contains all the major plot points. So for the last few mornings, I’ve sat with a form and watched Netflix movies and paused the movie every couple of minutes to make notes (which drives wife crazy). And amazingly enough, movies actually do follow the “beat” that Snyder has laid out. Almost down to the minute.

Note that many movies have a “beat” every ten minutes…when the reel changes (you can see a dot in the upper right corner of the film when this happens…but only in theaters). So the first reel is “setup”(Ordinary World), 2nd reel is “inciting incident,” and third is “break into Act II” (Crossing the First Threshold). There are 12 beats in all. Note that when the reel changes, the scene generally changes as well. Also note that the beats don’t correspond to the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey.

So far I’ve screened Defiance, Gamer, and Vertical Limit. I’m trying to stick to adventure-type movies as sort of a blueprint for my own movies. So far I’ve learned a lot. I think I’m going to develop a beat sheet for novels as well, and fill them out when I read them. Have any suggestions? (that I can see on Netflix steaming)

The next step will be more complicated. I may take a couple movies and do a scene-by-scene breakdown and build a movie chart that maps the movie by emotion and conflict. It will be tough but I think I can learn this. I’ll have to say that I’m probably never going to view movies the same again.

pirates knocked up shrek

Friday, February 25, 2011

Building a New Blog!

imageAs some of you have seen already, I’m transferring the “writing” portion of this blog to The WriteRunner. I’m looking for ideas about widgets and other things to do for it. I’ve already installed a comment system called Disqus and I’m using a new-fangled template.

My tentative launch date is March 14. I’m hoping to host a contest or blogfest or something. It also will celebrate the 2nd anniversary of the beginning of my writing career. Stay tuned for details.

Another thing I’ve done is to start echoing this blog onto Open Salon. Open Salon is an amalgam of many people’s blogs, where people can vote and promote their favorite content. Check it out and let me know what you think!

As far as this blog goes, once The WriteRunner is launch, I’m going to give this blog a makeover. I’m not sure what direction it will take but I can imagine that it might become more opinionated. The original purpose of this blog was to talk about my efforts to publish Dawn’s Rise but I never finished that project.

So feel free to point out what blog features you like using. Even if it’s not a “Blogger” feature I can probably find a way to use it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Punctuation Schmunctuation

imageOkay, maybe I’m starting to reach for blog topics. It’s hard coming up with two of these every week. I’ve written something like 350 of these over the last few years, so after a while it’s hard to not keep running over the same old ground. But I think I’ve hit on one of those hidden gems that begs for a write-up: punctuation. Probably because it’s the most boring aspect of writing, yet it’s the one thing that seems to invoke the most passion.

This weekend, I almost got into a (another) punctuation argument with my critique group. About what? Single or double- space between sentences. A simple Google search reveals the answer: One space. Period. One space. Next sentence. However, about half the documents I review have two. I simply meant to remind them of the convention, because Word 2010 puts little green marks whenever I have a double-space. (Yes, I know I can turn it off but why?)

You would have thought I asked them to wear uniforms and salute. Use acid-free paper and dolphin-safe toner. Change the gender of their characters and call them Charley. I almost got my head chewed off. I just wanted to mention it and move on. “Uh, could you just use one space—” “NO! HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST THAT! NEVER! NEVER NEVER NEVER! We’ll settle this in the parking lot!”

Yowza. Like, who cares? I just want my green marks to go away. I’ve had other people yell at me, “IT’S DOT-SPACE-DOT-SPACE-DOT, NOT …! DON’T USE CURLY ‘ USE ' ! USE -- NOT —!”

Sheesh! Does anyone know what editors truly want in electronic submissions? This kind of reminds me of the old days of programming, before there were any standards and when you wrote code in the simplest of text editors. The huge religious argument consisted of “tabs vs spaces vs 2 vs 4 space etc.” When to indent, how to format comments, even down to something called “Hungarian” which is precise rules to name code variables. I’ve endured argument over argument over the name of variables that are used maybe a couple of times. Nowadays, all those arguments are moot, because “smart editors” use company-wide templates and force your code to comply to a certain format. These are called “code beautifiers.” Nowadays, if you want to know what a variable does, hover your mouse over it. Who cares what it’s called?

Does something like this exist for manuscripts, that fixes all the crap authors put in there? Or does any of it really matter? Should we just be cool with writers using spaces to indent paragraphs, using l instead of 1, (that’s little L if you didn’t notice) and hitting line breaks at the end of each line? When are we going to enter the 2lst century?

Guess I should be glad that I’m actually getting electronic copies instead of typed or—gasp—handwritten entries. (Well, I still get handwritten feedback, but there’s only one space after those sentences).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don’t Be A Watson

watsonI’m going to talk about how the example of IBM’s Watson is a good object lesson on what not to do in your writing. Bear with me for a minute.

I was very impressed at how IBM’s creation Watson fared at Jeopardy. As a former computer scientist at places such as Google and Microsoft, I was actually more fascinated by Watson’s failures than its successes. Frankly, I was surprised that Watson didn’t answer every question correctly and faster than the humans. Watson missed obvious questions. To me, it seemed that the machine was great at trivia, the “fill in the blank” kind of questions. Things that any Google search can answer. But it failed at more complex problems, questions that involved things like metaphor and analogy, standard fare on SAT tests. It all led me to one conclusion:

We are still nowhere near achieving “artificial intelligence.”

Watson is just a machine, without emotion, drive, or ambition. I thought of a few questions I could easily ask it that it could never solve. “Who is standing to your left?” “How’s the lighting in here?” “Who does Ken Jennings remind you of?” “Fire! Please proceed to the nearest exit in an orderly manner.”

Yes, computer scientists have created something I call “programmed intelligence.” Intelligence in very specific domains, but as soon as you step outside the domain, the intelligence fails. Because “intelligence” isn’t just about recollection, computation, or pattern analysis. It’s much more about metaphor, symbolism, and relationships.

Think about a book for a moment. A book is really just a machine. It’s a Kindle with only one book available. The words are just dots of ink on the page that create letters. The letters form words, the words form sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Computers can be made to understand how to display and edit those letters and words, even spot incorrect ones. But a computer can never read a book and understand what’s in it. It can look up every word and phrase, but never truly comprehend the meaning, the story. And even a book can never judge your emotion reaction to the story and respond accordingly. There’s as much intelligence in Watson as in any book on your bookshelf.

There were other subtle things that Watson failed to do on Jeopardy. He couldn’t learn from his mistakes (yes, computers can be programmed to learn, but that’s the equivalent of fixing a typo). It seemed that the other contestants learned and began to challenge the machine on the third day. More importantly, Watson has no idea why he made mistakes to begin with. Watson has no insight, no self-awareness. Imagine if Alex Trebeck had said “incorrect” to Watson on even correct, obvious answers:

“Answer is: The color of the White House. Watson.”
“What is white?”
“Incorrect. Ken?”
“What is white?”

Watson would just hum along, completely oblivious. If Trebeck pulled that on Ken Jennings, he would storm off the stage or go after Trebeck’s throat.

So until we create a computer with emotion and true reasoning, we’ll never have intelligence, only super-fast trivia answerers.

So you’re wondering, “what does this have to do with my writing?”

The questions you should be asking yourself is, “How are my characters like Watson?” Do your characters react to their environment? Do they have their own agendas? Are they there just to provide other characters with information? Or are they living, reasoning creatures?

Another way to look at it is to ask, “What was at stake for Watson?” Yes, hundreds of computer scientists spent years on this project, but did Watson care? If there was indeed a fire alarm during taping, would Watson react? Do you think Watson really cared about how much money it earned? But every single character in your work cares about every interaction. There are stakes involved. They want something, and your other characters are either assistants or obstacles to those goals. Otherwise they are no better than the old books on your shelves.

So when you write your stories, keep one thing in mind: Don’t be a Watson.

NOTE: The writing content of this blog is moving soon! Check out the preview at The WriteRunner.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Romance Blogfest: Steam Palace

Romance Blogfest: Steam Palace

riflemanHappy Valentine’s Day everyone!

This is my entry for Jordan McCollum’s Romance Blogfest. Her instructions are: “Post a first meeting between two characters who will fall for each other (even if it doesn’t look like they will at the time!).” Please check out the other entries!

This scene is from the first chapter of Steam Palace where our Heroine Sophia is rescued by a mysterious stranger. Hank had been pursuing her, trying to force her to marry him.

Sophia’s world was crashing, burning around her. A man dead? she thought in disbelief. She looked at the four faces that surrounded her, all seeking her mortal harm. Two lifted Jim’s body onto his saddle. She had done that man a grievous wrong, and she ached to think of Jim’s family.

Despite the horror, Sophia would not be forced into a marriage with someone she did not love, no matter what the circumstances. That left only one path. Sophia ducked under Al’s arm in an escape move, breaking his hold, and ran through the woods with all the effort she could muster. She would fight them all the way to the gallows if necessary.

“You can’t run from this!” cried Hank behind her, no doubt mounting his horse in pursuit.

If she could just reach the mechohorse, the shotgun lay in its belly. Just as she reached the trail and spotted the machine, horses surrounded her once again, circling her. Sophia turned every which way but could not find an opening. Hank pulled out his pistol and shot at her feet, the reports echoing throughout the forest.

“Dance, Duchess, dance!”

A different boom rattled the trees. A lone horseman stood on the trail. A black hooded coat draped his head and shoulders. He rode on a magnificent chestnut mare worthy of the King’s Guard, holding a long, smoking rifle at the ready. “I shall not miss again,” he called.

“Hey, get the hell out of here!” cried Hank. “This ain’t your business. This woman killed one of my men, and we aim to have our revenge.”

The dark rider leveled the rifle and peered down the sight. “Say the word, milady, and I shall dispatch these men to their graves. This is a repeating Spencer, boys, fully loaded.” His voice spoke cool and calm.

[a lot of fighting and shooting ensues including an airship attack]

Sophia crept out from under the belly of her broken mechohorse. The dark rider rode his mare out from under a tree where he had hidden from the airship.

“Are you hurt, milady?”

Sophia examined herself for a second, and then looked up at the man who had saved her endless grief. “I am quite well, thank you. To whom do I owe gratitude?”

The man removed his hood. “Thomas Putnam, formerly Captain in the Third Aivy. This is Lucy.” He patted the mare.

“Thomas?” Sophia had not heard that name for years. Thomas was the son of the town’s only physician, a foreign woman from Charlottiana. He had been in the Aivy, the Air Navy as it were, for many years. “Thank you so much. I am forever in your debt.”

Sophia studied him. He looked terrible, with sunken eyes and many days’ growth of beard, quite unlike the tall, strong boy she remembered. His dark wavy hair lay plastered to his scalp. But she saw something else in his eyes, a strength of character missing in most men she had encountered in her life. She instinctively knew she could trust him.

“Do you require any further assistance?”

Sophia glanced at the mechohorse. “I believe she is done for. Might I request a ride to my home?”

“It would be my honor.” A hint of a smile crossed his lips.



research-cat-lolcat-706798I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the subject of research in novel writing. Research is a critical part of any story project. Research can be divided into 4 broad categories:

  1. Genre – This means reading a lot of works in your genre. You need to find out what’s been done, and what are the standard tropes of your genre. It can also involve in-person conversations. For Steam Palace, for example, I attended a few Steampunk conventions where I asked a lot of questions of steampunk enthusiasts as to “what makes a story Steampunk.” Other sources can include blogs about your genre, magazines, and reviews.
  2. World Building – If there is any kind of historical context or setting to your story, it behooves you to research the area in question. If you are writing SF/F in a “second world” setting (not a real Earth setting), your research may involve mythology, scientific studies, and other speculative works. Visit the settings in your book, talk to the locals. If it’s a made-up place, find a real-life place that is close. Make the bridge of your starship something like the bridge of a decommissioned aircraft carrier that you can visit.
  3. Character – Whether or not you base your characters on real people, it’s always good to have an idea of who your characters are. Biographies, memoirs, and genealogy are all sources of characters. Learn what made them do what they did, and see how it can apply to your story. Some characters are mixtures of many people, some are just certain aspects. If your character is in a specific profession, talk to people in that profession. Make sure you do this research for all your characters, not just the main ones.
  4. Story – This one is a little harder to define. This is more about learning about story structure beyond the standard of your genre. But it also involves interacting with your writing peers, whether at conferences or in critique groups. Find out what are the characteristics of good writing, and explore various styles of writing. Learn what the best way to tell your story should be.

How much research is enough?
I feel there is probably 2 main periods of research. The first comes before anything is written, when the story is still a concept. The second would be during the writing process, especially revision when you are trying to flesh out details. In terms of how much, I feel that if you are continually interrupted during the writing process to look something up, then you might want to dedicate a period of time to really understand your subject. But of course the actual amount of research will vary by subject and scope.

Please Note: The writing portion of this blog will soon be moving soon to That site is currently under construction but go ahead and subscribe so you don’t miss anything! This blog will remain active with non-writing topics. will include a helpful index of all my writing posts. Watch for the official launch!

Friday, February 11, 2011

One Person CAN Change the World

One Person CAN Change the World

Wael-GhonimMany novels, possibly the majority, revolve around a single character’s actions. And in many cases, the character is thrust into a position where he must challenge the status quo and fight “The Powers That Be.” It is a powerful message, especially in Western culture. We value the power of the individual to conquer the forces of evil, especially those who are well-established such as dictators.

We have plenty of great individuals in American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, and thousands more who fought the powers. I have many in my own family, from my cousin Barney who I’ve been posting about, to my Uncle Oliver who earned medals in WWII flying dangerous missions into the Far East.

The events of the last few weeks highlight to world what the power of individual is all about, and how one man can take down an empire, especially a corrupt empire. It all start when Google employee Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page that led to a rally to honor the memory of Khaled Said, a man who was beaten to death by police last June. Fittingly, that protest on January 25 led to more beatings, detentions, and deaths of the protestors. Ghonim was arrested. For a while it seemed like once again, the forces of evil would prevail, and the budding revolution would be quashed.

But here’s the thing, novel writers. The thing to remember is that events always move forward, and once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be replaced. Doors are opened that cannot be shut. The protesters refused to leave Tahrir Square. The government tried everything. They “released the hounds” and sent gangs of thugs, some armed with guns, against the protesters. But the protesters were willing to die rather than surrender. The government tried arresting the people.  They sent in the army, they arrested and beat up journalists, they closed off the internet, phones, and shut down transportation.

But the protesters still came. They grew. What started with one man putting up one Facebook page grew into a Revolution. The government tried pleading, bargaining with the protesters, giving them small concessions and freeing the detainees. Too little, way too late.

This morning, the Mubarak administration fell, literally without a shot being fired by the protesters. Ghonin called into CNN and said, (I’m paraphrasing), “my work here is done. I just want to go back to my job.” A classic Reluctant Hero. One can only hope he stays involved and help shape the future of Egypt.

When you are writing you own novels, think about what those protesters faced, how hard the opposition was (not to mention the freezing nights, lack of food, water, sleep, and sanitation), and how through sheer perseverance and sticking to their principals, they were ultimately able to overcome the great odds stacked in their favor. If you can capture even a portion of the emotion the Egyptians felt in this process, from utter despair to sheer joy, you’re probably in good shape.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Big “Nooo!” Moment

The Big “Nooo!” Moment

khanFirst, a quick word about my last post. After carefully reading the responses, I realized I may have made some generalities about readers’ expectations about why they read fiction. I think their point is well-taken: be careful when blogging to not make assumptions. However, I also feel that you should be unafraid to make strong points, because it leads to interesting discussion.

Now on to today’s topic. We’ve all seen it. It’s been parodied to death, yet many books and movies still use this tried-and-true method. Something happens that the character cannot control, eliciting the proverbial “Nooo!” or some variation. Darth Vader kills Obi-wan, and Luke says “Nooo!” and is dragged away. Frodo sees Gandalf die. “Nooo!” Sarah Connor first sees the Terminator (in Terminator 2). “Nooo!” Captain James Kirk’s “Khaaan!” counts, by the way.

Called the “Big No” trope,  it clearly signals an important turning point in the story. It’s a moment when the Bad Guy has his victory, when everything falls apart for the Hero. There’s only one thing left for the Hero to do: scream. But this “Nooo!” is more than just an outcry. It’s the Hero’s sudden recognition that not only is he facing physical harm and mental distress, it is that he is also facing the greatest enemy of all—Death. The stakes have been raised to their utmost.

Now when writing an adventure story like I have, I always had a couple “Nooo!” moments in mind. Especially writing Steampunk, there is one aspect that lends itself nicely to this: Airships. Airships are disasters waiting to happen. The Hindenburg proved that. But there are other dangers, one of which speaks to one of our basic fears: falling. And what happens when you combine an airship with falling? A “Nooo!” moment.

His hand slammed across Sophia’s face, a blast of pain that threw her to the deck. Viola shrieked and charged at him with clawed hands. He stepped aside and slammed the back of her head with the pistol. Viola stumbled, hit the railing, and flipped over with a scream, disappearing into the night.

“VIOLA!” Sophia jumped to the rail. “VIOLA! VIOLA!” No answer. She turned back.

Dunstan stood stricken. “No, no, nononononono.” He dropped to his knees, mouth agape.
– excerpt from Steam Palace 

What’s your favorite “Nooo!” Moment, from either your own work or popular movies/ fiction?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Conflict, Tension, and Stakes on Every Page

Conflict, Tension, and Stakes on Every Page

funny-pictures-cat-does-not-want-to-get-neuteredThis post was inspired by these blog posts:
The Literary LabLies You Believe
Victoria Mixon5 Writing Rules You Should Break

There has been some question about what the statement “You must have [conflict, tension] on every page [of your fiction manuscript]” means. I want to present my view on this, and hopefully demonstrate my argument as to the truthiness of this statement.

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: There doesn’t “have to” be anything on any page. If you want a recipe on one page, a description of a setting sun on another, or an author’s treatise on the basics of fly fishing on another, go for it. I’m just going to demonstrate why generally you should have more.

First, some definitions for this argument:

  • Conflict – A character has wants or needs and faces obstacles to fulfillment of these. These could be internal, such as the sometimes opposing need for love and autonomy.
  • Stakes – The possible outcomes, good or bad, of a situation. Note that these also can be internal, like self-worth vs self-loathing.
  • Tension – The doubt as to the outcome of a given situation, coupled with the reader’s desire to learn the outcome of a given situation.

My first posit is that all scenes contain conflict, stakes, and tension, on every page. The question really is, is the level of conflict, the depth of the stakes, and the degree of tension sufficient to keep a reader’s interest?

Let’s use a quick example of two teenagers, Mary and Sue, who have met to go to a movie:

Mary: Hey, let’s see Swords of Flame!
Sue: Cool! I’ve been dying to see it!
Mary: Let’s go!
Sue: Awesome!

It’s a simple scene. The conflict is almost non-existent: they agree. The stakes are low: the movie might suck. The tension is low: they are excited. The major question I have for you right now is: do you care what happens next? Did we even need to show that they agreed to the movie, or should we just fast-forward to the movie, or even later?

Now let’s take that simple scene and ask ourselves: what can I do to increase conflict, stakes, and tension? For conflict, we’ll get them to disagree (which is one of myriad ways to introduce conflict. Conflict is not always argument).

Mary: Hey, let’s see Swords of Flame!
Sue: No, you promised that we’d see Runes of Ruin!
Mary: But Jesse tweeted that he was going to Swords, and I replied. We have to go.
Sue: But I told you that my cousin Ralph is in the credits. We have to see Runes!

The conflict is obvious. But now, there are stakes. Sue has a familial connection with Runes, and feels an obligation. She also feels that Mary betrayed her, and wants Mary to keep her word. But Mary’s friend Jesse is going to Swords, and she wants to make a connection with him. For tension, hopefully there’s a interest in the reader in what happens next. Does Mary apologize for changing her mind? Do they go separately? Does this lead to more conflict between the two?

What I want to state is that there is not a binary there-is-or-there-isn’t conflict/tension on every page. There probably is some. The question is really how much? Can you increase it? Do your lower-tension scenes truly contrast with your higher-tension scenes?

I’ve heard it said, “well the reader needs a break. Not every page needs to be high-tension.” Yes. Not every scene is “defuse the bomb in thirty seconds or we all die.” But if you go on and on with low-tension scenes without conflict, then you really must ask yourself, “who is going to find this interesting?” The next question to ask yourself is “why should a reader care about any of this? Why should they keep reading? What’s going on that’s entertaining? Is there sufficient doubt as to the outcome, and are some of the outcomes pretty bad?”

It kind of goes to the heart of why you are writing this in the first place.

The reason readers read fiction is to find out, “what happens next? Is all the crap the character is going through going to be worth it?” The way to achieve this (among other ways), is to always consider the conflict, stakes, and tension level of every page, and increase it as much as you can.

For an exercise, take a look at any random page of any published novel (except for the last few pages where everything has been defused and random backstory prologues) and see if you can identify the conflict, stakes, and tension. Let me know what you find in the comments.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The “Whoa” Factor

The “Whoa” Factor

whoa stopI was all set to post something about dissection agents’ reaction during the Writers Digest Conference last weekend. It seems that overall, writers had a great response from agents, with tons of requests for partials. Why? Well, after spending the week thinking about it, I think it comes down to the idea that WDC simply attracted some of the best new writers (and I hope I’m in that group) and blew the agents away. Their pitches were refined and honed, and agents recognized the effort it takes to come to such an event. It was a writing love fest.

So that being said, I want to discuss what I think made my pitch work. (for full disclosure, I did receive a rejection so it’s not sure-fire). This is what I’m now calling, The “Whoa” Factor. It all comes down to evoking an emotional response in the target of your pitch, whether it’s a live pitch, a query letter, or even a synopsis. I could actually see the response in the form of widened eyes and a change in posture. (See my last post).

Here are some examples of “Whoa” moments.

  • Jill walks down the street and witnesses a little girl run out in front of a car and get hit.
    Note that you might want to immediately know what happened…is the kid okay or does she get hurt? What does Jill do?
  • Joe’s arrives at work to find federal agents rifling through all the company paperwork. He’s told he no longer has a job, and he can’t leave town.
    Why? What happened? How does Joe react? What is Joe going to do?
  • Fred has just taken off from La Guardia when the captain comes on the speaker and says, “we’re being re-routed….to Canada. I have no further information.”
    Oh no, is it another 9/11 or just terrible weather? Is the plane itself being threatened?
  • Maria walks into work one day and meets her new boss, neither knowing her boss had given Maria up for adoption 20 years ago.
    How do they find out? What is their reactions? Are they able to bond? Do they want to?
  • Barney receives a letter from the old country begging him to rescue his family before they are murdered in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” (a true story)
    What does he do? Can he rescue them in time?

Note one common thing about all these examples: I don’t reveal what happens. But they all suggest grand conflicts, life-changing moments, and potential hardship for the characters. They are intriguing, but don’t describe the entire story arc (which is usually the reaction to these events). They are usually found at major turning-points of the story.

So my question for you is this:
Does your story have The “Whoa” Factor? Are there a couple incidents in your story that could be summarized in just one sentence that effectively creates a visceral reaction, something unexpected that would catch a reader/listener off-guard?

If you can find them, consider adding them to a query letter or a pitch and see if it’s an improvement.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Writers Digest ’11 Conference Report

Writers Digest Conference ’11 Report

imageWow. What a weekend. So much has happened. I’ll have a few more posts about it in the coming days.

To summarize, last weekend I attended my first writers conference. The main event was “Pitch Slam” where I had about 60 seconds to describe Steam Palace to literary agents. The event took place in the Sheraton NY Hotel and Towers in Manhattan, a snowball’s throw from Times Square.

Throughout the first day, there was only one thing on people’s mind: refine the pitch. Test it out on others. So every chance we got, we practiced our pitches with each other. Earlier in the week, Janet Reid had claimed on her blog that a pitch is a one-line description of your main character and an inciting incident. That set the Twitterverse abuzz as this was contrary to the advice on Writer Digest’s own web site. Then Chuck Sambuchino added fire to the mix when he suggested yet another structure: “long line” and then hit the Inciting Incident.


To confuse matters even furtherer (and spell check is accepting furtherer as a word), earlier in the week, I had run across the new office of the PNWA in Issaquah, WA, and I had run my pitch by them. Frankly, they provided me with the best advice of all: describe the main protagonist and the most dangerous antagonist’s most tense moment, but don’t reveal the outcome. Kind of like, describe the Gunfight at the O. K. Corral just before the shots are fired. (Just read Mike Resnick’s Steampunk version of that event called “Buntline Special”…kewl).

So, with all that advice in hand, I spent the evening at a lounge with fellow writers honing and perfecting, trying variations, and getting the tempo down. That’s when I first saw it. In that lounge (Faces and Names), I saw reactions in the faces of my fellow writers. More about that to come.

The next day started with Don Maass’ presentation. Okay, no beating around it. The man is a god. He did a mini-workshop where I worked on one of my weaker scenes, and dammit, by the time he was done, I had a much better idea of how to rev up the tension. But once the morning sessions ended, I went back to my room with my box lunch, and did a little soul-searching.

It’s been almost 2 years since I was let go from my job. Two years of trying to learn a new profession, to turn a lifetime of writing dreams into reality. I knew when I sat across from an agent, I was putting my very existence on the line. This was like job interviews, except this was a job that I wanted more than anything I’ve ever wanted since I asked my wife to move in with me way back when. Yeah, I was nervous. Dead nervous. Cold hands, sweaty brow, churning stomach. And with two hours of sessions left before Pitch Slam, I knew I had to get my nerves under control.

The last session was Janet Reid’s. And she is the Query Shark. Every person that volunteered was ripped, stripped, and left the stage with a much better pitch. She, too, is a goddess. But I kept going back to the advice I had received in town before I left. I saw how my fellow writers reacted to it. So, I pretty much ignored Janet’s advice (I will go back and look at her advice for query letters though. May send her one just to see…) and headed to the Slam.

By the time I got in, it was packed. SRO. Every table was ten people deep, and with three minutes for each pitch, that meant that I was at least thirty minutes behind the first people in line. Shit. Then that damn bell kept ringing, hammering my heart like the Liberty Bell falling on me. Each bell meant I was that much closer. The man in front of me got to go early because the last person left before the bell. They talked. They talked. I could see it was a ‘No’ but they kept talking. I heard it! My bell, my beautiful bell that meant I could go and make my very first pitch, just like the first pitch of the World Series, and they kept talking. Hello? Hello??? HE-LLOOO???

He left. I sat down. “HiImAndrewMynovelscomplete120thousandwordsSteampunk” O M G. I don’t think I’ve ever talked that fast in my life. I think I forgot to breath, because at one point in the middle I said, “hold on". I took a breath. Then, “sotheEmperorgivesSophiaanimpossiblechoice: betrayyourcountryorIllkillyoursister.”

There. Done! I took a breath. I looked at her face.

She spoke. “So…what’s so Steampunk about it?”

I don’t know if you just heard the sound of the Liberty Bell falling on me again, but that was not a question I had prepared for. “Uhh…um…uh Victorian stuff? Giant machines? Uhh…” Crap, I was losing it. Then her next question, “would you say it’s more plot or character driven?” The Liberty Bell has now left the building….by crashing though the floor and taking me with it. “Sorta in the middle?” Holy shit, I sounded like a loser! “No,” I said with conviction. Never sound wishy-washy. Ever. Even if the answer’s wrong. “It’s more plot driven. But I do a lot of character work too.” Would that work?

Turns out she’s interested, but a little hesitant. I got my first “send me something.”
TADA!!! HALLELUJAH! Hey, now, hey now! Note (you know that song…)

On to the next one. Maybe I was overconfident, but I got a “not interested” pretty quickly. Good. PLEASE, agents, do not waste time at these events! Yeah, I was disappointed, but I was 1-for-2, and next up was probably the agent that I really, really wanted the most. I was running with the pitch I had worked on. I really had to nail it this time.

This is how I know I might be a writer. This is how I know that this has all been worth it. Like I mentioned earlier, I could see a reaction when I recited my pitch. Right in the middle, there is this widening of eyes. A slight pulling back of the chin. An “I didn’t see that coming.”

Sophia travels to Hartford where she meets this mean, angry, evil woman who tries to lure her into prostitution, but then finds out that this woman is her separated-at-birth identical twin.

I got the “whoa”. I had learned this from practicing, that I could elicit that “whoa” moment from my colleagues. I figured agents would be jaded, but I started to get the same reaction from them. I knew I touched some emotion in them, the “holy shit, Sophia must be conflicted” emotion. I even learned to put a “beat” at that moment, to allow the reaction to occur. (And it’s not even my Inciting Incident, Janet, it’s the Turning Point that leads into Act II, because once Sophia accepts that Viola is her sister, everything she’s every known about her life has changed, and she irrevocably in a Special World…but I didn’t mention any of that in my pitch).

Then I drove to the thrilling punch-line:

The Emperor captures the twins and says to Sophia, “give me the secret to the Sea Key” (which would lead to her country’s destruction), “or I will kill your sister.”

Then I stopped. Another “whoa.” I could see that I reached them. Nods. An intake of breath. Some mentioned, “now that’s a dilemma.” I sold this agent and the next three, a total of 5 out of 6 requests for query/partial. (And yes, I used a parenthetical expression in my pitch).

Mark this moment down. I entertained 5 literary agents for 180 seconds each. I showed them that I have the potential to be their client. Time will tell if any of these agents are interested in representing me. My gut tells me that it’s a long shot, but it’s a far shorter throw than I had just four days ago. My attendance at this event has catapulted me in front of the hundreds, if not thousands, of the queries these agents receive every month.

The other thing this conference has done is re-energized me as a writer, to keep working hard. I see a light, it might not be the right tunnel or even the right direction, but I can see it. I’m going to keep driving for it, because not only did I talk to my fellow writers about Steam Palace, I also mentioned the Family History project, and after seeing them react to it, I know that it will gain huge interest as well. I can do this. I just need an agent! Or a contract!


Monday, January 17, 2011

What Makes a Hero

What Makes a Hero

HF_LogoIn the last two weeks, against the backdrop of me frantically preparing for this week’s Writer’s Digest Conference, I’ve had two massive projects dropped in my lap.

The first, which I’ve chronicled in my last two posts, is the story of my cousin Barney and his heroic rescue of his family from persecution in the 1920’s.

The second, which I won’t detail due to privacy issues, is the memoir of a new member of one of my writing groups where he chronicles his dealings with mental illness. Let’s call him Joe. I’ve been helping him figure out how to structure his account.

Both are true stories, and both share something amazing: a true Hero in both the real and the literary sense of the word. As I learn about both stories, I realize that these are stories that absolutely must be told. Not only that, they both revolve around probably the greatest motivator in the world: the need for love and connection with our fellow man.

Here are some of the things that makes them Heroes.

  • They are broken in some way. In Barney’s case, in 1920 he is living with his sister at 25. He seems to be stuck in some kind of rut. We’re still researching, but it seems to me he led a quiet, sheltered life without much interaction outside of his house. But he left his family to come to America at an early age—why?
    In Joe’s case, let’s just say at age 40 he’s an incomplete man but he want to be complete. He wants relationships and family.
  • They are presented with a challenge/invited to go on a Journey. Barney is faced with a letter from the old country pleading for help. Joe falls in love with a woman, probably for the first time in his life.
  • The Journey is dangerous. Mortally dangerous (is there any other kind?). This is not a journey to take lightly. Barney literally faces armed forces. Joe literally faces Demons. (not supernatural. I can’t be more specific than that but I assure you that they are violent and malevolent).
  • The Journey promises a great Reward. In Barney’s case, it is the reunification of his family. In Joe’s case, it is even simpler. He’s looking for love.
  • There is a parallel, inner Journey occurring. On the outside, both men are fighting for their families, taking on the demons that block their progress at every turn. But the greatest demons are the ones in our own heads. What the Journey teaches them, by defeating the outer demons, is how to take on their inner demons and win.

So now, the question for me as I head to New York, is what about little Miss Sophia Stratton, the main character of Steam Palace? Does she in any way compare to these real-life heroes?

I see her story a little like Barney’s. She leads a somewhat sheltered life. She’s avoided relationships, lived with her mother and older sister’s family (whoa---way parallel). She’s kept her nose to the grindstone, perhaps like Barney, and never looked at the “bigger picture.”

She’s had Calls to Adventure in the form of letters from her Aunt, begging her to visit, but it’s not until her own life becomes so untenable that she accepts it. In Sophia’s case, the Journey isn’t quite as well-defined, which may be something I need to look at. It’s actually a series of journeys, all revolving around her twin sister Viola. At the core, Sophia is trying to honor her father’s memory, to right a wrong that occurred long ago.

The Reward for Sophia is fairly clear: her family survives. But she is presented with an even greater reward: if she completes the journey, she will gain what her father lost: their ancestral lands and peerage. But there’s a reward greater than all of those out there: her twin sister Viola. This goes to the heart of the Evil Twin metaphor: by confronting your twin, you are really confronting yourself. Sophia not only sees what she could have become, but she learns to appreciate what she has. So if she can come to terms with Viola and who Viola is, Sophia is really coming to terms with who Sophia is, and that’s the Inner Demon she must ultimately conquer. Like Joe, Sophia realizes that her love for her sister can heal Viola, and by doing so, can heal the hole in her own heart left when her father died.

Have you looked at your own work to see what your character gains from the Journey? How do they change, and what do learn from the experience? How do they start broken in some way and then wind up more complete?

Monday, January 10, 2011

More History

More History

SS-Mount-ClaySo, as a writer, I see stories. And I uncovered a doozy in my family’s history. I see scenarios worthy of Academy Awards, Pulitzer prizes, and Oprah’s book club. All that is required is the proper delivery. Now these aren’t my direct ancestors, but rather the story of my grandfather’s uncle and first cousin. But they still resound with me.

[The SS Mount Clay, the ship that brought this whole family to America in 1921]

Let’s take a look at a few of these characters.

Barney. Youngest of six…with five older sisters. I can picture his parents, finally receiving a boy (it’s not clear if there were any boys that died in childbirth/infancy) after 16 years of girls. A blessing beyond anything they had known. But when he turns 18, Barney decides to join his eldest sister Frieda in New York. His parents must be heartbroken.

Pauline. Youngest of the five girls. She’s the free-spirit, the crazy one. But when she speaks out against the injustices brought upon her people, her parents force Frieda to take Pauline with her to New York for Pauline’s own safety.

Frieda. Oldest of the six, she marries a relatively well-off man who emigrates to New York. Already with children, he pays their way two years later, but she must also take her youngest sister, the troublemaker. Frieda’s is the classic success story.

Nechamie. The father of six, five being girls. He has worked hard all his life to provide for his family. But his son’s departure is a crushing blow. Full of pride, he carries on, never asking anything from anyone, but he has no one to continue the family business, something he never gets over.

Bassie. In the middle of the six, she just wants a quiet life with her new husband. Her daughter Blossom is the pride of her life. But everything  is thrown into chaos when violence claims her husband’s life and Blossom’s cries of hunger wrench her soul.

Those are the main players in this drama. Nechamie had held everything together for years, despite the worsening conditions in his homeland. He has closed his eyes to the violence, even sending Pauline away to avoid it. But when Bassie’s husband is murdered, he knows he cannot close his eyes any longer. He has only one place to turn—his son who abandoned him years earlier and never wrote or sent a thing.

Barney’s life is comfortable. He just served his new country in WWI, still lives with his sister Frieda and her four children, and is beginning a promising career. The old country is now just a distant memory. He has heard of the unrest, of the violence, but it never occurs to him to do anything, despite Pauline’s strident activism. One day he receives a letter from his father. He has never known his father to ask for anything, but his father’s desperate tone chills him. Despite his misgivings and days of soul-searching, consulting with Frieda and Pauline, he knows there is only one thing he can do. He must travel the dangerous road back to his homeland and rescue his family before it is too late.

So I have all the elements of a classic story. A reluctant hero. A damsel (or two) in distress. A perilous journey into the heart of enemy territory (both social and emotional). A prideful father and an angst-filled son. A backdrop of social revolution. Characters filled with inner conflict. And, of course, the incredible fact that it really happened.

All that is missing are some villains, some faces to put on the forces opposing this effort. There are the usual suspects, such as unfeeling bureaucrats, corrupt officials, and ambitious military officers, but I feel like this story needs a more personal villain, the personification of everything they are struggling against. I think this is an area to use a touch of creative license. Note that this the same pool to draw unexpected allies from, although I do have a few names of people who helped along the way.

So this is a story that just begs to be written. And it is the kind of story I feel that I was made to write, a desperate adventure with a race against time. But it will require actual research to a degree I’ve never attempted before. But if I can pull this off, I think the possibilities are limitless.

Friday, January 7, 2011



Andrew - 001Samuel StumacherHow many of us know our family’s history? This week, a cousin of mine sent me a huge, 400+ page full-color tome illustrating my family’s history going back 8 generations. I cannot stop reading it. It is a truly humbling piece of work. It also shows what a giant clusterfuck history is.

My great-grandfather Samuel Stumacher on the left, me on the right. Apparently goggles were not the rage back then.

I’m sitting here in a cafĂ©, writing on my netbook computer. 110 years ago, my ancestors fled persecution using falsified documents with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. I know almost every American has a similar story in their background. But to see it come alive in one book was shocking to me.

Some of my ancestors are only known by their names, where they lived, and their approximate birth year. Many of the women have no maiden names known. These people are no more than lines in a census registry sitting in a government archive in Kiev, listed alongside their family members. So as a writer (and a human being) I start wondering about them. What did they do for a living? Did they love their spouses? What did they achieve that they are proud of? What are some of the challenges they faced? Did they have pets? How did they die?

A few of the lines in the census end with the word “conscripted.” These men were put in the army, and never heard from again. This was one of the “solutions” to the “Jewish Problem.” Cannon fodder. Back then, armies weren’t all comfy-cosy like they are today. It was virtual slavery which lasted 25 years before they were let go.

Women were all but ignored in the records. Daughters were married off and never heard from again. Wives seemingly came from nowhere. My thought was, “well someone must have a record of these people.” Yes. The synagogues did. Until they were burned. With their congregations inside. (I am not exaggerating this).

One of the most heart-wrenching mementos in the book is a letter written from a father to a son, begging for the son (a US WWI Vet who emigrated much earlier) to return from American and take them away. Why? Because pogroms were decimating the Jewish population. The father Nechamie literally did not know “hour-to-hour” whether he was going to stay alive.

Many people were killed, and our daughter Bassie had married, but her husband was murdered. Now she is left with a child, and has no means with which to keep it.
–Nechame Stumacher, 1920, translated

His son Barney did come and rescue them in an ordeal worthy of any Hollywood movie.

…56 extended family members set out in wagons for the Romanian border, They were robbed and harassed by soldiers but managed to get to the border…they were stopped by the police who noticed the [fake] passports sticking out of the neckline of Bassie’s dress (where she had hidden them)…
–Based on Barney Stumacher’s audiotape recollection


Pictured: Barney Stumacher, Bassie Stumacher, and the baby Blossom Batt, who incidentally lived to the age of 89 and died in 2009, survived by 4 children.

One thing that gets me is all the blank entries in the book…those people who stayed behind, those that didn’t “make it.” Their records continue up until 1939, then end. That is when the Nazis invaded the Ukraine. In the town where my ancestors are from, the Nazi’s executed 7,000 Jews. Seven Thousand. That was about a quarter of the town’s entire population. Two 9/11’s in one small town. I don’t know how many of my relatives died, but it’s probably dozens, if not hundreds. There were only a handful of survivors. The cousin who compiled this history did not consult the Holocaust records, and frankly I don’t blame him. It’s mortifyingly depressing.

There is one thing that gets me more than anything, one thing that I cannot shake, and maybe this is the part I can take into my writing. I think about the people that left, that came to America to start new lives. They left everything behind to sail into an unknown future, to travel to a land where they did not speak the language. You may think that they didn’t have much to lose given their circumstances, but I look at all my ancestors and see dozens that were born, lived, married, raised children, and died in that same town. Let me tell you something right now.

They did not want to leave.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine after 9/11 that I’ll never forget. The majority of people are simple folk. All they want is to have a chance for a happy life. To have a decent job, to marry someone they like, to raise a few kids. Nothing special. They want to build a home they live in the rest of their lives. Most of the people who died on 9/11 were just plain old office workers, janitors, moms and dads. And most of the people in Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan are exactly the same. People just want to live their lives.

I look at the records of my ancestors, and I see the same kind of people. Married, families, strong religious beliefs, and working simple jobs that kept food on the table. Shopkeepers, tailors, carriage drivers, carpenters. They did not want to leave. This was their home for generations. But then everything changed. Their homes were invaded. Their businesses were burned. Their husbands and wives were murdered, all tacitly approved by the government. They had no choice but to leave. Not all of them did.

I realized that these people were Heroes, in the truest sense of the word. They did the unthinkable. They moved their entire families to a strange country and faced countless dangers along the way. They faced death and survived (followers of my blog should see where this is going).

I’m not suggesting every story you write should be about people facing genocide, living in a dystopic hell. But if I could channel even a tiny portion of the emotion that I’m feeling right now about my ancestors, I think I will be a successful writer.

In your novel writing, consider whether your main character is truly facing an impossible choice, but in some ways, there should not be a choice at all. Your main character must do what they must do, face the enemy straight on, and risk everything. Only then can they be a Hero.

I can’t really think of many things more courageous or more difficult than what my ancestors achieved. If they had not found the means to leave, if they decided to “wait it out” or hope for better times, then I would not be here today living in relative comfort, and their lives would have ended in a horrific way.

So I salute the man pictured above, Samuel Stumacher, for bringing his family of 8 (including my paternal grandmother at age 7) to New York in 1901. He did not live long enough to see my father’s birth (his grandson), but I know he’s up there somewhere looking down on his dozens of descendants. Thank you, Samuel.

PS Apparently Sholom Aleichem, famous Yiddish writer, lived for a few years in this very same town. He is the author of the story that Fiddler on the Roof is based on, which depicts life in a town that neighbors my ancestors’ town at that same time period.