About My Book

Learn more about my first book, Six Pack: Emergence.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Still Here, But With A Few New Years Resolutions

Been a while since I blogged, hasn't it?

A lot has been happening in real life. Had to deal with a cough that wouldn't go away. Had family visiting for Thanksgiving. Had projects to finish at work, then my work schedule picked up a bit. I had plans to settle down and work on some writing this past week, but a friend of mine I met online passed away (and he was only 33 years old) and it was tough for met to focus on some of the writing projects I wanted to do. And this week, I'm preparing to go home for Christmas.

The good news is that I got a lot of feedback from several people on my novel draft, some of it regarding the whole draft and some regarding a few chapters, and now I'm at the point where I believe the time has come to do that final polish (although I plan to get a little more feedback from somebody on a couple more chapters) and start thinking about the next step: Preparing query letters and pitches and finding an agent.

I have other things planned for the coming year, which you might say are my New Year's resolutions. I want to become a paid member of the Kansas Writer's Association and I need to think about getting my own website going. But another resolution I want to make is that I want to get this blog updated more often.

My plan is to do updates every Sunday morning, starting with the new year. That's a time I'm usually doing laundry and should be able to sit down and write something. And while I've tried to keep this focused on writing topics, I've realized that sometimes you aren't going to have something on your mind about that. Sometimes you just need to blog about whatever happens to cross your mind at that point. (The exception: NFL football, which I write about for Thin Air).

So that's what I'm planning on doing once the new year begins. In the meantime, I hope to get myself focused again on the other writing projects I do (you can learn about that, and the website Thin Air, right here) and get some of the chapters of my planned novel polished. I started on that first draft back in April 2015, so January will mark 10 months from the point I started this process of writing, revising, researching and reaching out to more people.

With any luck, I'll have something more to share with you on this blog on a weekly basis. And for those who have followed me on Twitter, I hope to pop on a little more often than I have been (I have two accounts, but the other one I use focuses more on my work and sports-related thoughts).

Also, I asked for an Amazon Fire tablet for Christmas, so maybe I'll even get a chance to check out more writings from independent authors. I know a lot of them have followed me on Twitter and I do want to learn more about what they are up to.

As for my own novel, with any luck, it might get to the point where I'm not just talking about my draft any more.

All the best to everyone this holiday season, whatever it is you celebrate, and be safe.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Avoiding Sleepers

Yesterday I attended the November meeting of the Kansas Writers Association, at which the topic, led by author Sara Jenlink, was writing style and how to improve it.

Among the subjects she covered was avoiding sleepers. That means avoiding certain words or forms as much as possible because they tend to not draw readers into your work.

Most authors know to avoid the passive voice whenever possible. That's because the passive voice doesn't draw the reader's attention like the active voice. "He was running from the area" does not command a reader's attention like "he fled the scene."  The writer should not say "she was wide eyed" because "her eyes widened" works better.

Jenlink also discussed the weather report, or what is the real focus of a scene. One shouldn't write that it was hot, but write about a character wiping sweat from his brow or fanning a hand in front of his face.

Other sleepers to avoid are:

* The to + verb combination. To walk, to see, to do. You should not write "she tried to see." Instead, you should write "she strained her gaze."
* "Have to." Unless you are writing dialogue, use a word such as must, essential, or required.
* Limit the usage of verbs ending in -ing. "He started running" can be rewritten as "he quickened his pace" or "he moved faster."
* Avoid ending a sentence with an -ly word, also known as an adverb. That's not just about Tom Swifties, but describing action. Figure out how to show the meaning or action.
* "Got to." Avoid the word "got" as much as possible, except in dialogue.
* "Seems." Either replace the word, use an active word or add a passage to establish when something is vague.
* Avoid starting a sentence with "this is" or "there was" or "these are." Rewrite the sentence and focus on the object. Not effective: This is the car I like to drive. More effective: I like my Chevrolet.
* Don't use "start" or "begin" to describe an action. Get to the action. Do not write "it started to rain" when "raindrops fell" works better.
* Limit prepositional phrases. If you have already described where and when, you need not repeat that.
* "The problem" sentence. Your character, in dialogue, might say "the problem is that we have no money." But if you're describing first-person point of view, write "we had no money" or "we were broke" or you might get creative and write "we stared at our empty wallets."
* Don't start a sentence with a question word such as "what" or "how." Get to the main noun and verb.

You may find you can't eliminate in sleepers -- even the best writers occasionally use them. But your objective is to minimize the sleepers outside of dialogue.

Even when writing dialogue, you can cut down the sleepers. Think about how most people talk -- for example, they don't use the passive voice all the time. On the other hand, "it seems to me" is a phrase people will likely use in conversation, and so is "we have to go." Your dialogue should reflect how your characters talk, so while reducing sleepers may help, you shouldn't do it if it isn't in line with the way your character speaks.

Your narration, however, needs to keep your reader's attention. Sleepers will reduce your story's readability. If you want readers focused on your narrator, make sure your writing style keeps them that way.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Mockingjay Works Better As A Two-Part Film

In just a couple of weeks, Mockingjay Part Two will hit the theaters and conclude The Hunger Games series on film. io9.com has an interview with producer Nina Jacobson and director Francis Lawrence about how splitting the adaptation of the third book into two movies allowed them more freedom.

Naturally, the comments section followed with multiple people saying that the only reason it got split into two films was so the studios could make more money. Never mind that's the opening line of the io9 article and it's the Captain Obvious statement to end all such statements. So that begs the question: Why couldn't they just do a three-hour movie to get more stuff in from the book?

What, you think every single arc that needs to be completed and characters whose relationship with Katniss Everdeen needs fleshing out could be accomplished just by adding 35 minutes? Oh wait, did everyone forget that the first two Hunger Games film clock in at nearly two-and-a-half hours each? And they had to cut plenty of stuff out, too.

Of course, one can argue (and I would agree) that much of the stuff that got cut out of the first two films wasn't important to include in the films. The entire arc with Madge Undersee and how she was related to the Mockingjay pin was eliminated. Additional background on Katniss' relationship with Prim (most notably the goat story) is gone. The Avoxes are reduced to the background. We never see Gale's family or Peeta's family. Katniss' prep team gets just a couple of cameo appearances in the second film. The District 8 refugees who tried to locate District 13 are never mentioned. Heck, the entire arc that closes the first book, about how the Capitol is mad at Katniss for showing up their spectacle, is reduced to a few quick "let me sum up" scenes in the first film.

Even with all that material reduced or scrapped, the first two films still ran nearly two-and-a-half hours each. So how could one honestly think everything that gets wrapped up in the third book could get addressed in one three-hour film? Wasn't one of the complaints about Mockingjay that the third book seemed rushed, lacked suspense and didn't neatly tie up every loose end? Doesn't it sound like keeping the film adaptation to one three-hour ride cause the same problems?

Hey, I'm aware of how Hollywood operates with these final installments ever since the final Harry Potter film was split into two parts. But setting that aside, there are several good reasons for why Mockingjay's film adaptation works better as a two-parter and, in some ways, improves upon the book.

A warning: Spoilers follow, so don't keep reading if you haven't read Mockingjay.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Flexibility A Key To Good Writing

The talk among writers during November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, in which writers are tasked with writing a full-length novel during the month of November. I didn't get into it this year because I'm still trying to perfect my first work.

It's been interesting to see how this journey has unfolded. It started with me going at this on my own, then sharing my work with an old friend, who was gracious to go through it and give me some advice. Then came research on what I could do to make my work better, which led to the second draft. Then I read books about writing and publishing advice and that's when I learned about how getting involved with a writer's group would help.

So that led to a third draft which I brought to the groups to review and got a lot of suggestions on what I could do to make it better. That led to a fourth draft, in which I got additional suggestions, and a fifth draft, which I sent out to a couple of beta readers. And now the book is in the sixth draft and I'm hoping to get to another writer's group so they can see my work. With any luck, the book will hit the stage in which it just needs a polish and I can roll with it.

Meanwhile, I've got ideas for the next part of the trilogy and where I want to go with it. As the next parts take shape, I've envisioned different things about where the story should go, which characters introduced take on important roles and which ones need to fade more into the background. At least one character I thought would take on a major role is turning more into a background character because there wasn't any way I could give him a more expansive role in the story. He has a little importance, but not as much as others do.

The lesson I learned is about flexibility when planning something out for the long term, and that sometimes what you think is going to work out, doesn't go the way you intended. The best thing you can do is adjust so that your vision works better. The worst thing you can do is cling to something too tightly. You can hold firm on a few things, but you can't hold firm on everything.

It's like life. You may have certain ideas you don't want to lose, certain things you intend to do no matter what, but you find you aren't able to make all those ideas work the way you expected and that some things you really want to do just aren't going to happen. It's not for a lack of trying, it's for realizing that life, like writing, demands flexibility and a willingness to adjust. Stay too rigid and it's far less likely things will work out as you expect.

Yeah, that sounds like advice for all our politicians and lobbyists in Washington, doesn't it?

But I'll get off the political tangent and get back to writing. What I've learned is that when you sit down to write, you have to be prepared to adjust if you want the best possible product. You can do this without losing your vision entirely. And you might find that your vision changes somewhat, taking you places you didn't expect to go.

I'd be interested to hear more from others about what they envisioned for their first novels and what changed along the way. I'm betting few writers had final drafts that fit exactly with what they wanted from the start, that they learned that some things had to change, some things had to be eliminated and some things had to go a different direction, because the characters and world they had demanded it.

As for NaNoWriMo, will I ever do it? Perhaps in the future. This trilogy is taking priority, but once that's out of the way, I have a few other book ideas that might lead to a NaNoWriMo project.

But with those ideas, I expect them to be the same as this one, and with life: You've got to be flexible and learn what needs to change with your thinking.

(A brief update on the book: I'm at 61,823 words in 22 chapters, with three more to finish, and those should come this week. With any luck, I can get back to the writer's group in Pratt so they can see what I've got, and maybe a few others with the Kansas Writers Association will be interested in where things are going.)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Yes, Horror Can Make You Think

When I was 11 years old (this was 1982), two friends of mine suggested we see Poltergeist. It was a horror film but rated PG (this was before the PG-13 rating came along) and my parents seemed OK with it, if that's what I wanted to do.

Toward the end of the film, it got so intense and scary that I was hurrying out of the theater, turned around and found one of my friends following me. After we caught our breath, we headed back to our seats and finished the film. And while I heard stories about people not getting much sleep after horror films, I actually slept well and didn't have any nightmares about the film. At the time, though, I was just an 11-year-old kid and was more interested in whether or not I liked a film, than I was about underlying themes.

A few years later, when I was in college, I took a class about reviewing films and writing about character development, camera techniques and themes. This was when I experienced another horror film, Psycho. Part of me wondered if I would get through the experience without being freaked out, but not only did that not happen, I turned in one of my better essays on one of the techniques, the prying eye. At the time, though, I still wasn't thinking as much about deeper critiques of film as much as I saw the class as a chance to watch movies.

Fast forward to today, in which I've entered the realm of novel writing. After hearing about Stephen King's nonfiction work On Writing, purchasing it and enjoying it, I decided it was time to read more of King's work (the only book I read of his was It). Along the way, it led me to purchase the DVD of Carrie, the 1976 film based on King's first novel of the same title. I knew enough about the film and book to know some of what to expect, but as I watched the film, I didn't find myself creeped out as much as I found myself sympathizing with the main character, and thinking about why I did.

I think that's because, as I explored novel writing, I learned more about character development and understanding what makes a story work. And, yes, that's possible with horror. In fact, what makes certain works of horror hold up over time isn't just memorable scenes, but characters and themes.

Going back to Poltergeist, it wasn't until I got older that I read up on the film and learned that it was really a critique of suburbia. The plot in brief: Steven Freeling is a successful real estate developer who owns a typical suburban home that was located on land on which an old cemetery was once located. It's revealed that the development firm Freeling worked for never bothered to relocate the entire cemetery but simply removed the headstones.

The theme touched upon is that suburbs have sprawled so much that nobody can remember, or may even care, what used to stand where their neighborhoods are located. We see how this has become a problem ranging from infrastructure that cities can't maintain without racking up debt or getting money from the federal government, to homes located on land that wasn't really suitable for them and resulting in structural problems or nature taking its course and ruining the land the homes sit on. It may not be the supernatural at work, but those problems exist.

King may have been ahead of his time when he wrote Carrie, because it's a critique of bullying. The main character is awkward and reclusive, largely because of her religious zealot of a mother, to the point that when Carrie has her period in the communal shower, she thinks she's bleeding to death. Her classmates torment her and are punished by the physical education teacher. One classmate of Carrie's feels guilty and wants to make it up to her, while another (who happens to be spoiled by her parents) wants revenge. It builds to the famous prom scene in which the latter classmate stages an elaborate prank to humiliate Carrie, who lashes out at everyone.

Indeed, we look in today's society about teenagers who lash out at their classmates, often through means we would never condone, and we learn that these teens were picked on and harassed when they were younger and, in many cases, the parents were oblivious that something was bothering their children. It's not surprising that there is heightened awareness of bullying and getting kids and teens to understand it's wrong and to speak out against it.

Finally, there's Psycho, which deals with an overriding theme of guilt. It starts with Marion Crane, who is asked by her boss to deposit a large sum of money into the bank, only to steal the money to give it to her boyfriend, who has debts to pay. From her boss seeing her head out of town and wondering if she's OK, to a state police officer following her because he thinks she's acting suspiciously, her guilt overcomes her and she decides to return the money and admit to her theft. I'm sure most of you know she never gets the chance.

Then there's Norman Bates, who seems to be on a guilt trip of his own. At first, it seems like he's feeling guilty about his mother and the atrocities she commits, but we find out later that his guilt actually stems from his jealousy over his mother finding a new lover and killing them both. He took on his mother's personality at that point, driving him to kill any woman he found attractive.

The lesson to be learned: Guilt is hard to deal with, so you are better off fessing up when you know you've made a mistake, no matter how bad it is.

What makes films such as Psycho, Carrie and Poltergeist stand the test of time is that the themes remain relevant today, and in some cases, more so than they did back when they were first released. They show that horror, when written well, can resonate on a larger scale, and that perhaps the real reason the best works freak us out is not because a scene was scary, but because the theme made us think about how we should be more aware of the consequences of our behavior.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: The Inner Circle

When I got back into comic books and graphic novels, I picked up Identity Crisis. That's when I became familiar with the writing talents of Brad Meltzer.

It was several years later when I ran across a selection of books for $1 each and one of Meltzer's titles was among them, The Fifth Assassin. I bought it and enjoyed it. It led me to track down the book that preceded Fifth Assassin, The Inner Circle.

The Inner Circle was the first book to follow Beecher Write, an archivist who works with the most important U.S. government documents. He stumbles upon a 200-year-old dictionary that once belonged to George Washington and unravels a mystery surrounding the President of the United States and a host of others, among them White's childhood friend Clementine Kaye, whose father had attempted to kill the President.

The story starts off slowly, with Meltzer getting into some backstory, all while hinting about what's to come later. It picks up in the middle, though, and becomes more intriguing as Meltzer builds to the climax. This is one of Meltzer's strengths as a writer -- he does a good job building suspense and dropping hints early that all is not what it seems. There are moments in which it was tough to put the book down because I wondered what was going to happen next.

He's also good at keeping the reader guessing as to who, among those White encounters, is really being honest with him. There are instances in which Meltzer suggests that one person is to be trusted, but reveals later that's not the case. Other instances see Meltzer hint that somebody isn't trustworthy, but that person's honest becomes apparent later.

Meltzer mostly sticks to first-person narrative through White, but at times, will jump into a third-person limited viewpoint. That might be jarring to some readers who are used to sticking in with one or the other throughout a book. There are chapters in which he jumps back to past events; again, that might be jarring to readers who want a seamless flow of current events.

I believe Meltzer's ability to build suspense and intrigue is what really keeps the story strong. There are a few loose ends left dangling, but it's understandable because this is the first in The Culper Ring series. The Fifth Assassin is the second in the series and the third, The President's Shadow, was released this past summer.

You can order The Inner Circle through Amazon or visit your local bookstore.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book Update: Entering The Home Stretch

So now it's coming to this: The sixth, and hopefully final, draft of my first novel.

I've had several beta readers give me good feedback, which indicated I needed to include more, after I had taken a lot out. What I needed to include more of was not more characters or plot developments, but more insight into the characters and what makes them tick.

I've learned over the course of these drafts that sometimes you need to remove something from a drat to make the story work better, but the more I've talked to those who have read my fifth draft, the more I realized I needed more depth. In other words, it's the "more" that actually works when crafting a novel.

Along the way, I've paid close attention to books as I've read them, not just enjoying what I'm reading, but paying attention to what's being developed and why it's important.

The latest book I'm reading is Stephen King's The Stand, which may be an extreme example of how you can include a lot in a novel but manage to get away with it. Of course, King had written multiple novels by the time The Stand came along, so he could rely partly on reputation to sell it to publishers. At the same time, he had to fall back on everything he learned as a writer in order to make the story work for readers.

I can tell you that my planned book will not approach the number of pages in The Stand (and no first-time novel writer should attempt that, I believe) but as the fifth draft came in at just a little more than 50,000 words, I have plenty of room to add without making the book get too long. The trick, of course, is to find that happy medium in giving the readers enough so they become more invested in the characters, but not so much that they become bored, overwhelmed or confused.

So I can tell you that I have completed three chapters and the count looks like this:

* Chapter 1: 4,144 words.
* Chapter 2: 2,988 words.
* Chapter 3: 2,849 words.

I am hopeful I can finish the sixth draft in a couple of months, only needing to balance that writing with my work schedule. Some chapters will require rewriting, others just need polishing. From there, I'm hopeful I'll have a draft that's ready for the next step.

In the meantime, I've got writing to review for other people and I am hopeful to get a book review up this weekend.

But, yes, the journey I've started is about to reach the next phase. It's simply a matter of sticking with it until I get there.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Reporting Has Changed, But Still Isn't Pleasant

Barry Petchesky shares the ugly truth about reporting. As someone who has written for newspapers, I can tell you that reporting is not always a pleasant experience and there are plenty of times when I didn't want to go out approaching people and ask them difficult questions, I understood it came with their territory.

I understand people don't like it when a reporter is rude, and yes, there are ways a reporter can approach a story without acting rude. For some people, though, there is no difference between the reporter who runs up to and starts firing off questions and the reporter who walks up to you, identifies who he/she is and asks if you are willing to talk. And a lot of that comes with how the media presents itself today and the impression people get from how it's presented.

It's important to remember that the way news is delivered is changing. If a major event took place in 1910, newspapers did the legwork. Most of the time it was limited to the newspapers closest to the event. In such situations, the pressure to get out the story as quickly as possible was not as intense because there were fewer people alongside you trying to get the story. If an event was so significant that a newspaper in a major city far removed from the area wanted to cover it, it took time for that paper to send a reporter there, so your supervisors weren't worried about that competition.

The first change came when television came along, and soon after, cable television and the rise of the 24-7 news network. Now it was possible to have reporters on the scene quickly, telling people what was happening. And these reporters would be followed along by a cameraman, able to pull viewers right into events and see action and emotion unfold before them. Combine that with 24-7 news networks needing to fill time as breaking news stories developed, and there became a greater need for local outlets to get the details.

Then came the Internet and social media. Now reporters who live in New York City don't have to worry about traveling across the country to Oregon to get details; they can approach people on Twitter -- especially when people who have firsthand knowledge about events are tweeting remarks about them. So it's no surprise you have those involved in journalistic outfits sending tweets back, asking if it's OK to talk to these people. More importantly, it's not surprising you see reporters do this, because they know everybody in journalism is using social media to keep updated about what's happening and if there's an important event that people want to know more about.

Petchesky is correct that Twitter means people can see the reporting process unfold and learn that it's sometimes unpleasant. Again, it's true you don't want to be rude, but one must remember that rudeness is about how you approach, not that you approached to begin with. And I agree with Petchesky that asking for comments on Twitter is less intrusive because it's easier to ignore a tweet (even if we sometimes find it easy to give into temptation) than an actual person with a microphone followed by a cameraman or somebody with pen and paper knocking on your front door.

More importantly, if you don't like the idea of reporters sending tweets to people who are tweeting how they are witnessing a newsworthy development, then why aren't you asking why people tweet about those developments in the first place? It's not surprising people would do this, because social media users are accustomed to talking about their observations and experiences. But as those who know technology would tell you, when you put something out on social media, it essentially becomes part of the public domain, even when you limit who can see it.

And when it comes to Twitter, most people who send stuff out know the public can see it. I've had people who don't follow me on Twitter interact with tweets I've sent out. That's why I've learned not to tweet something out I don't want to share with the public. If I tweet it, I accept that someone might respond. It comes with the territory.

Back to reporting: It's a job that is sometimes unpleasant and one that many people wouldn't have the stomach to do. In fact, I'll admit that hard news really isn't my thing. I've always done better with features and lighter material. Regardless, I know those who do hard news don't have an easy job, and that most of them are not insensitive pricks. There are a few who truly are rude, but they shouldn't be compared to those who approach people gently and ask if it's OK to talk -- and they certainly shouldn't be compared to those who send requests for interviews to anyone who uses Twitter to talk about a major event they are witnessing.

There are legitimate criticisms to make about the way reporters conduct themselves and how news is presented. But this is what happens when the competition to get story details becomes fierce. If a reporter doesn't bother to ask questions that allow them to humanize events, somebody else will, then somebody else will ask the reporter why he/she didn't do the job the reporter was hired to do.

Most of all, if you witness a major event and talk about what you are seeing on Twitter, or see somebody else tweeting about a major event, stop acting like it's a major ethics violation when a reporter tweets back asking if it's OK to talk about it. Because once it's tweeted out, you've told the world you want to talk about it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Update: Another Reason Cutting Stuff Helps

So after getting feedback on my fifth draft, I pulled it out and made my own comments. What I found was interesting.

When I reviewed my fourth draft, I found quite a few things I could cut from the draft to tighten the story.  The result was my fifth draft going down to a little more than 50,000 words from around 62,000 in the fourth draft.

After reading feedback and my own brief review, I realized that I needed to make additions by expanding on the characters I kept and the situations they face.

By cutting something from a previous draft, not only can the story work better, but you can go into more detail about what you keep. The result is what should be a more polished product, one that keeps readers interested.

So there's another reason to not be afraid to cut something from a draft. It gives you more freedom to expand characters and other elements that play more importance to your story.

The sixth draft is what I plan to make my final draft before I take the next step. Because we are getting closer to that point, I have decided to reveal a few more details about the book, and you can learn a little more about the primary characters of the book by checking out my information page about Six Pack: Emergence.

For those who have read my draft or parts of it, I thank you. For anyone who is still interested, you are free to inquire, but be advised I want to start writing again by the end of October and it might come earlier than that if I find the time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What Really Made The Muppet Show Work

While I am a fan of the Muppets, I didn't bother tuning into the premier episode of ABC's revival. When I read about the concept, it didn't strike me as getting to the heart of what the Muppets are all about.

I've heard some people say the problem with the revived Muppets is that too much of the material is aimed at adults rather than children. I find that interesting because, when I recently bought the first season of The Muppet Show on DVD and watched the episodes, there were actually a lot of jokes that were aimed at adults. So why was it something that the whole family could enjoy?

Because Jim Henson understood how to approach material so that the jokes and gags weren't obviously aimed at adults. To kids, everything looked like puppets being funny and they could laugh along with it without having Mom and Dad explain everything to them. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad could sit back and laugh because they had an idea about the deeper meaning of the jokes.

With Kermit, kids just saw a frog whose face got scrunched every time something went awry or unexpected. Adults, though, could understand the frustration Kermit went through when things didn't go as planned. Or better yet, Mom and Dad saw Kermit as them having to put up with kids who ask too many questions or otherwise drive them crazy.

And the numbers the Muppets performed often carried a deeper meaning. I'll direct you to this blog post about the meaning behind the "Mahna Mahna" number, which explains it was more than just a goofy song that gets stuck in your head. Again, though, kids didn't have to get the deeper meaning to enjoy it. Neither did adults, although I wonder if some of them thought more about the meaning even as they were laughing along with it.

The Muppets are at their best when they are in a variety-show environment, as that allows them to poke fun at the world around them. The Muppet Movie was more of an elaborate expansion of that variety-show environment, with musical numbers spread throughout the adventure describing how these Muppets came to be celebrities.

The Muppets movie released in 2011 got to the heart of that, in which the whole premise was about whether or not the gang should get back together to put on a variety show during a time in which audiences seem more interested in other things. But turning the Muppets into a general sitcom is what I think is the bigger problem than any notions about how the show should be directed at kids.

And when you present humor on the show, you need to style it so that the jokes and premises are more adult in nature, but nobody pays attention because kids are spending more time laughing at how funny those Muppets are. That's the charm the Muppets brought, and from everything I've read, that's what the attempted sitcom may be missing.

Perhaps it's time to revisit the premise of the 2011 movie and find out whether or not the world is ready for a variety show format again?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Break In The Action At The Right Time

The completion of my fifth draft came at the right time, now that work has picked up. But having less time to focus on my novel isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Some of the advice I've read is to set aside your writing for a while and focus on other things. That's probably something I needed to do, because I had moved quickly from a first to a fifth draft in a six-month span.

It's been a good time to let beta readers look at either the draft in full or the first few chapters. (Blatant plug: I'm still open to those who are interested.) I've had time to enjoy other activities, such as watching NFL football (I'm a Broncos fan) and spending time with family (my mother and sister came to visit this past weekend).

It's also been a good time to pick up additional books. I finished The Catcher In The Rye and have started The Stand (1,500-plus pages in paperback form, so this may take a while). I also have Jurassic Park, The Maze Runner and the original Star Wars trilogy paperback. Those should keep me occupied for a few months.

With each book I've read, I've paid attention to character development, voice and pacing. It's the first item I'm focused on because it gets me thinking about how I may give more depth to my characters. Voice is something I've learned can make or break a book (as I explained when I talked about The Catcher In The Rye). And pacing is something I've learned can be the differnce between keeping a reader's attention or driving them away, whether it's because they think there's too much going on or not enough happening.

It's different from how I used to read books, in which I didn't think much about those elements and only concerned myself with whether or not I enjoyed the book. I have found it makes reading more enjoyable, though, to think about what elements drew me in.

The time will come, though, when I'll have to sit down, read the fifth draft and determine what adjustments remain. That's when I'll definitely need to pay attention to what makes a book enjoyable.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Writer's Strengths Can Be The Difference

I've been on a book buying binge as of late, meaning I'll have quite a bit of reading to do in the coming weeks. Along the way, I'll have a chance to think about the books I read and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each.

One of the books I recently bought was The Catcher In The Rye. It's an interesting read for more than just the main character, but how it was written -- and how it might violate some of the rules that writers should follow today.

The biggest violation of today's rules would be the long paragraphs. Writers are encouraged to break up long paragraphs so that it's easier on a reader's eye. Consider that J.D. Salinger ignored that rule and you might ask yourself how in the world his book could have caught the interest of readers.

No, I don't believe it was because the rules for writing back when The Catcher In The Rye was published are different. It's what made the book work, and that's the voice he brings to the main character, Holden Caufield. Salinger's first-person writing conveys the idea that Caufield is telling you his story and what he's experiencing. Caufield is believable as a teenager who finds himself unable to fit in with the world around him.

Salinger's strengths come through the writing and allow him to get away with those long paragraphs most of the time. Granted, those long paragraphs won't keep every reader's attention drawn, but the voice he utilizes makes it easy to see why the novel held strong appeal when it was released.

In critiquing other's work, I've examined what the writer's strengths are and what areas the writer can improve. I've made sure to talk about their strengths so they know what is working and how they can build on that. For whatever I find to be weak points, the writer can decide when it's good to change them or if the strong points are enough to overcome the weak.

Of course, I believe some rules of thumb writers follow have changed over time, as writers thought more about what works and what doesn't. But there may be times when it's OK to break, or at least bend, a couple of those rules if a writer finds something that everyone says works well. The writer just needs to emphasize those strong points, so that the weak points don't bother most readers.

No writer is going to be perfect at anything. That's why it's good for every writer to recognize his or her strengths and use them well, while recognizing areas to improve. Trying to get everything right can be a difficult task, but building on one's strengths means the best chance for a book most readers will enjoy.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Some Rules Apply To All Forms Of Writing

For those who have read my All About Me In 20 Questions post, you know that my full time job is sports editor for a weekly newspaper, which not only means I do a lot of writing, but when high school sports are underway, my schedule becomes busier.

It was a good thing that I got my fifth book draft finished last week, because I enter that brief period in which I don't look at the draft and allow others to review it. (If you are interested in being a beta reader, the details are here.)

Even so, I've thought about some of the things that I learned from book writing when I've sat down to write newspaper stories. Sure, newspaper stories are shorter than novels, and even short stories, but there are similarities regarding how they are written.

For example, on more than one occasion, when editing a story, I suggested cutting the word "just" when it wasn't necessary. "Just" is one of many words that book writers are told to consider dropping whenever possible, because it cleans up writing and makes it easier on the reader.

Other book writing tips can apply to different forms of writing. Cutting down on adverbs is a good thing, for example. So are using active tense and simple words. Even learning how to draw a reader's attention early is useful. With newspaper stories, they tell you the lead can make a story. That's similar to how the first few lines of your first chapter can make your book.

It goes back to something else I said in my 20 Question post: Spend time writing whenever you can. Regardless of what you write or whether or not you do it for a living, practicing writing is how you get better. No matter what you write, you can think about tips and guidelines that can improve your craft.

Some rules are different for different pieces. But in many cases, the rules are the same.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Seeking Beta Readers

The fifth draft of my first novel is finished and I'm looking for a couple of people who are interested in being beta readers.

One of the pointers Stephen King gave in his book On Writing is finding a few people who are willing to read a draft of your novel before submitting it to an agent or publisher. I've reached that stage and hope that a few people who have been interested in my writing are willing to critique it. I am planning to talk to a couple of people I've met at Kansas Writers Assocation meetings, but could use a few more beta readers.

If you are interested in reading the draft, I'll let you know what I'm looking for.

* I want you to give an honest assessment of what you like and don't like about it, particularly about the characters and the pacing. I want to know whether you found them relatable or sympathetic, which ones drew your attention and which ones you'd believe need more depth. Tell me how much I held your interest or if there were points in which you believed the story need to move along quicker (or slower). In other words, I want specifics, not just whether or not you liked it overall.

* Certainly, part of the job is looking for spelling, grammar and punctuation. There may be the debate about the Oxford comma, though. Seriously, do keep an eye open for such issues and typos.

* You should have a recent version of Microsoft Word or a program that can open a file with a ".docx" extension. I use Microsoft Word 2010.

* Remember that this is a critique, not a review. You are NOT to spoil anything (only I decide what will and won't be spoiled before the book comes out). You are not to pass it around to anybody else unless you get permission from me (and in such cases, it will only be granted if that person wants to be a beta reader). You are not to discuss plot or character details with anyone else.

* I will give you two months to read the draft and send it back to me with your critiques. Getting it back sooner would be better, but I understand everyone gets busy. Besides, another pointer from King is that the writer put the draft away for a few weeks, so I won't be doing anything with this draft for a while.

If you are willing to do this, here is what you do.

Send me an email to ratsportrm at yahoo.com. Please put Beta Reader in your subject. Let me know why you are interested in doing this (other than the fact that you know me and think I'm a nice guy).

I will take up to 10 people (no more than that, though) who are willing to read and critique my work. As for what's in it for you, I can discuss that with you individually.

Thank you in advance to those who are interested.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Printed Books Still Hold Value

Technology has changed the way we publish material. I know too well about how newspapers are, at the very least, transitioning to online publications. Schools are replacing textbooks with materials downloaded to reading tablets. And the world of book publishing has more writings in electronic format.

For some of the written world, it's not surprising electronic formats are more useful. Newspaper stories, for example, tend to be short. The majority of those stories I've written never exceeded 1,000 words. I haven't kept track of which stories were the longest, but I would imagine the longest ones never topped 2,000 words.

Those stories make sense to be switched to online publishing. They are short and don't take long for people to read. It makes sense that people would want to read those stories on the go. If one did that with a newspaper, the reader would have to either fold the paper or hold it up close to their eyes to read each story. An electronic device simplifies that. One can use a tablet or smartphone to click a link and scroll down.

But books aren't something most people will read in one sitting. Somebody reading a book while riding the bus or subway to work will have to put it down at some point, not because they want to. Everyone gets immersed in a book they love, but when you reach your destination, you have to mark your place and get up. And unlike a newspaper, a reader doesn't have to move a book around or fold the pages while reading.

While e-books and online publishing are a wonderful thing for authors who haven't been able to get works released through traditional methods, I find reading any lengthy piece online to not be the same as reading a paper copy. Short blog posts and stories don't require much scrolling, but longer stories do, unless they are broken up into multiple pages. Also, I find it hard on my eyes to stare at a screen for too long.

A few years ago, I did a story about a retired teacher who spent her summers tutoring children. She told me about the research she read about how the human brain functions. She said what helps exercise the brain is to engage in physical activity, even if it's simply turning the pages of a book.

I have noticed this whenver I read books. I can feel a surge in my brain, as if it wants more with each page I turn. My eyes are never strained. Flipping the pages makes it feel like a personal experience, whereas scrolling and clicking sometimes tires me out.

Perhaps it's just a side effect of what I do for a living. Most of my work involves staring back at a computer screen or looking at my smartphone. Do this for too long and I need a break.

But I think there is something to what the retired teacher said. Activity that stimulates the brain is a good thing. If we get more brain stimulus from turning the pages of a book than we do scrolling and clicking, it makes sense to read more paper-format books.

I know there are authors who prefer to release their books electronically. But I don't think they should entirely dismiss printed books. I know the major self-publishing companies sell print books to order alongside e-books. That's a good compromise for authors who either don't want to go the traditional route, or have tried it but couldn't find an agent or publisher who would give them a chance.

Meanwhile, I hope authors encourage younger readers to pick up a printed book every now and then. E-books do open new options to authors, but most of us grew up on printed material and have wonderful memories about their favorite titles.

That's something we shouldn't lose as we move further into this electronic era. I think if we turn more pages of paper books, the more our brains will thank us.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

How To Deal With Your Biases

Confession time: I am biased.

Bias is only human. It gets shaped by personal experiences, environments and surroundings, other people and personal interests. And there's no way to get bias entirely out of my system.

What I do -- and you can do as well -- is learn how to admit your biases and deal with them the best you can. This isn't an easy task, but with time, you can overcome at least some of your biases and keep others under control when you engage in discussion.

I'll stick with myself. I'm biased in favor of the Denver Broncos. I learned to deal with, and overcome it to a degree, by reading about what goes into making good personnel decisions, what character issues really impact a team, and what the real effect is of a pro sports team on a local economy. In doing so, I learned that the Broncos don't always make the right personnel decisions, which Bronco players could truly be forgiven for their mistakes and which ones needed to depart, and that it wasn't a wise decision to support any public funding for a pro sports stadium -- even the one that led to a new stadium for the Broncos about 15 years ago. These things remind me that the Broncos are not infallible.

I'm biased against Donald Trump and the way he runs his Presidential campaign. I won't ever get that bias out entirely, but I've learned to control it by recognizing a few things. First, by recognizing that Trump sometimes raises valid points, because every Presidential candidate has them. Second, by recognizing that his popularity has a lot to do with voter frustration over governments that seem uninterested in making tough decisions about policy and keep going back to methods that aren't working. Third, by recognizing we have weak candidates in both parties, ranging from a Democratic field that seems resigned to Hillary Clinton winning the nomination (Bernie Sanders being the exception) to a Republican field that seems only interested in repeating the talking points tossed around when George W. Bush was in office. Recognizing these things makes me understand why some voters are enthusiastic about Trump.

If you want to recognize and deal with your biases, the first step to take is to admit that you have them and don't add any qualifiers to that admission. In other words, stick with the statement "I am biased" and don't follow it with any other. Remember, your task is to admit to your biases, not that anyone else has them.

From there, these are the things you can do to help you confront your biases, get past a few of them and keep others under control.

1. Remember that you are not the only with personal experiences or interests. Everyone has experienced different situations in life and interests vary among people. Relating your own experiences and interests is fine, but make sure you listen to those of other people and don't disregard them because they don't line up with yours.

2. Don't get your information from just sources that tell you what you want to hear. It's easy to pass around Facebook memes and articles that start a paragraph with "this will shock you" or other similar phrases. If you are a liberal, you need to read some conservative writings, and not just so you can make fun of them. The same applies if you are conservative, libertarian, or any other political label you identify with. Your job is to get informed as much as you can, not to sit in an echo chamber.

3. Seek out those who write thought-provoking pieces or engage in thought-provoking conversations. It's easy to flock to the orator who goes on endless rants about how enraged you need to get or the bloggers who ramble in their writings about "see, this proves this doesn't work!" But the ones that are easy to flock to are the ones that will prevent you from seeing your own biases.

4. Don't go complaining about how somebody else is biased, no matter how true it may be. The instant you do that is the instant you will be unable to confront your biases. Remember, this is about YOU, not about somebody else.

5. Remember that dealing with bias is not the same thing as changing your mind or opinion. You don't have to change every opinion you have. All you need to do is be open to dialogue and additional information, so you can re-evaluate your opinions and determine if you still have a valid point or if you may want to reconsider. If you aren't open to more information, you're not willing to confront your biases.

None of these things are easy to do, but remember that recognizing and confronting your biases are not supposed to be easy, but difficult. They are like most things in life -- there are no easy answers, and even for the things we know to be right or wrong, there are no easy solutions to ensure right and wrong are addressed. Don't pretend otherwise.

I won't ever get rid of every bias I have and some will surface in my writings. However, I strive to keep an open mind and that helps me deal with those biases. If you want to deal with yours, remember that an open mind is a good place to start.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Character Alignments For Your Consideration

I've mentioned in All About Me In 20 Questions that I participate in e-wrestling, a hobby that involves a lot of writing. In wrestling, the tendency is to think of characters as either a face (good guy), a heel (villian) or a tweener (antihero).

But there was one e-fed that requested character alignments based on Palladium role playing games. I thought it was worth visiting because these alignments could describe many characters in the books we write and read. The alignments might be a good way to give characters more depth than simply whether the character would be called a hero, villian or antihero.

I've tweaked the alignments a bit from how the e-fed presented them, and because the alignments were based on Palladium, I figure these descriptions will be similar to the RPG. But here they are for consideration.

Principled: A principled character lives by a strict code of ethics. There is a definite right and wrong in the world for this character and they attempt to right those wrongs. There are certain lines they will not cross, though, and they will do all they can within that strict code to bring wrongdoers to justice.

Scrupulous: These characters know right and wrong and believe that those in the wrong should be brought to justice. But if the rules prevent this, they will bend the rules so that justice can be served. "Fight fire with fire" fits the mentality of these characters, although they may weigh the benefit versus the cost of bending a rule when making decisions.

Unprincipled: These characters understand that there are right and wrongs, but as long as they can stretch a few of the rules and don't get caught, they are fine with their actions. Their main concern is that the damage their actions cause isn't serious and that the repercussions don't have a long-term negative effect. Such characters will usually stay within a code but will bend it from time to time, more often than a scrupulous character.

Taoist: Whatever is fun or enjoyable is what is right. These characters seek out what they like and strive for that above everything else. They are not worried where something came from or how they got it, as long as they can have fun using it. If somebody doesn't understand the situation, they're missing out on something. Though they are likely to make fun of others and not understand why they would be upset, they do not seek to cause physical injury.

Anarchist: These characters see social norms as roadblocks toward achieving their goals. They may or may not be in it for themselves, and they don't necessarily care about their own interest above all others. But they constantly push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable to achieve the desired result.

Selfish: These characters will work within a system, but only if it benefits them personally. Rules only apply when they gain something from them; if they don't, they will be discarded. They are aware that their actions cause harm but they aren't bothered by them. The only thing that matters is how things can best serve themselves, not others around them.

Aberrant: One might call this "honor among thieves." Characters of this type have a code of ethics that governs their lives and they will abide by it. However, they will break laws society has in place because they realize that it's human nature to try to "get ahead." They also see that the nature of society is to sometimes ignore rule-breaking, so they see no harm in doing it.

Miscreant: These characters cause grief for kicks. They are the type that seems to enjoy making life miserable for other people. They may not cross certain lines, but those situations are few.

Diabolic: These characters are, simply put, evil. There is nothing they won't do to achieve their goals, whether it's backstabbing, trickery or injury. They do these things without guilt and they may not even have a natural goal in mind. They simply see the opportunity is there and they take it.

So what alignments do your characters fall under? Do these descriptions fit them? Or are there certain words you would use to describe them that don't appear on this list?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Critiquing Others Work Can Help Your Writing, Too

Attending the writer's group in Pratt, Kan., has proven useful as I get to critique other's writing, and in the process, get ideas about how I can improve my own.

Critiquing other's writing is a useful practice, because you learn what does and doesn't work for you as a reader. And while there will be times in which you may not be interested in a subject, you can still spot areas in which writers need to improve, then apply that to your own writing.

In the first draft of the book I wrote, I tossed out a whole bunch of ideas for plot points I wanted to cover and characters I wanted to introduce. I went through four drafts in which I revamped from telling to showing, breaking up long passages of inner dialogue and moving material from the first part of my trilogy to the second. A few things got cut, but much of it remained intact.

But as I talked to other writers and got their ideas, I reconsidered a few things and excluded some of them as I started my fifth draft. That's because I discovered that certain characters didn't really have much of a role, and a couple of plot points didn't really lead anywhere.

And some of my decisions came because I read another person's draft. I thought this person had an interesting concept and did a good job illustrating the main character's inner conflict, but he had certain plot points that didn't lead to anything and certain characters who carried little importance. I saw that he could cut down or eliminate certain things to improve the story's flow and pull readers deeper into the themes and what the main character faces.

I then asked myself, if I see things another writer can eliminate to improve a story, why couldn't I do the same with my story?

I'll admit when I first started writing my novel, I wasn't sure how many people I wanted to read my work. I imagine it's tempting for many writers to keep everything a secret, in hopes of surprising readers with a storyline and the twists the plot takes.

But had I not started sharing my writing, I wouldn't have learned what I could really do to draw a reader's attention. Nor would I have been given the chance to look at what other people have written and suggest what might work better. And that demonstrated that my critiques of other people's writing carries as much importance as having others critique mine.

Always remember that, when you talk about what you see in another writer's draft, that what you suggest can be just as useful to help you improve. The more we share critiques with one another, the better we all become as writers.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Participation Trophies Aren't The Problem Here

Albert Burneko of Deadspin wrote a column in response to former NFL linebacker James Harrison making his kids give up participation trophies because he believed they didn't deserve trophies just for showing up. Burneko goes on to remind people how innocent kids are to begin with and concludes that the real problem is the trophy they give to the kids who win.

He has a point, actually. It's true you don't get a bonus in your paycheck just for showing up to work, but that's because you've reached an age at which point you shouldn't expect that. In Harrison's case, we are talking about kids who were eight and six years old, who are at an age in which the overwhelming majority of them may not like to lose, but get more pleasure in just running around with the ball, smiling and giggling, as adults try to encourage them while reminding them about the rules of the game.

As they get older, those trinkets just don't come for them any longer -- or at least in theory, they do. But if you think about, rewards for just showing up are still a part of life. In high school, they call them participation certificates and year-end banquets. Oh, but wait, they aren't trophies, so they don't count? Actually, they do, because anything presented you just for participating is the same: You stuck it out for the year, so here's your reward!

More to the point, though, is that for every parent who coddles their child too much and tries to protect them from every little thing that might get the child upset, there is a parent who drills the idea of "look out for number one" into a child's mind at such an early age that the child wants nothing to do with anything the parent wants because the child is scared to death of being shamed for not winning.

Whether or not Harrison is one of the latter parents is not for me to judge, but his argument is misdirected. It's not giving out participation awards to six-year-old kids that contributes to our "entitlement" society, but the combination of people who go overboard in protecting a child's self-esteem and the people who pound into a child's head the idea that if you don't win, you're a failure. Both instances lead to kids who don't know how to handle a situation that doesn't go their way.

Nobody likes to lose and nobody likes to be rejected, but it's part of life. But giving participation trophies is not something that causes a child to not learn how to handle the downside of life. People who can't stand to lose, whether because they are too competitive for their own good or too worried about failure, are the problem.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that six-year-olds and eight-year-olds are still learning a lot about life and, while they love to win and don't like to lose just like any other person, they're more concerned about whether or not they had fun. If a parent is more concerned with winning or a child's feelings, the child sure isn't going to have fun.

That's really the "entitlement" Harrison should be concerned about -- the "entitlement" for parents to insist everything go their way.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

How Learning Really Happens

As I continue exploring the writing world and proceed with my first attempt at a novel, I find myself learning a lot of things I need to do. I'm also reminded about what education is really all about.

We worry about education so much in the United States, but we go about it the wrong way. I'm not talking about what we expect our kids to learn; I'm talking about how we go about it. Most of the time, we focus our education concerns on how well kids test. We spend time comparing test results to other nations, we worry that we aren't number one and we decide the best option is to test more frequently to make sure nobody is falling behind.

Meanwhile, we are losing sight on what learning is supposed to be all about: Allowing a person to explore something on his or her own, experiment with what he or she has researched, then have somebody who understands the subject examine what that person has done and critique it, pointing out what was done correctly, what is incorrect, what the person did well and where the person needs improvement.

As I have started novel writing, I've had to learn plenty of things, even though I write for a living. Newspaper writing and novel writing are not the same, so I have plenty to learn. And the only way I'm going to learn is to sit down and experiment, then get feedback.

Sure, we could figure out which authors and writers are the best based on how well they remember all the writing advice they got and test them on their grammatical skills. But that does not mean the authors and writers who get the best test scores are going to be the best at the craft. In fact, I suspect most authors and writers would strongly object to the idea that test scores should be the standard by which authors and writers are judged.

So if we believe it's a bad idea to judge authors and writers based on how much they remember to pass a test, then why do we insist that's the best way to educate our kids? I realize that not every child starts kindergarten knowing how to read or do simple math problems, but why must we test the child so many times to see what they are doing? Wouldn't a better method be to let the child sit down, demonstrate what reading or math skills they have, then let the teacher examine them, explain to the child what he or she got right or wrong, and what the child did well or needs improvement?

There are ways to do this without it sounding like you are putting a child down. Even at a young age, if you start out by telling them what they did well, then follow it with what they didn't do well, and explain what they can do to get it right, that's more likely to encourage a child than to slap a test down in front of them and judge them based on whether they pass it or not.

That doesn't mean testing should be scrapped entirely. What it means is we need to focus more on how a child really learns, and that's by experimenting, figuring out how to get better or how to get the correct answer, and then sharing it with others to find out what worked and what didn't. It's no different from how authors and writers get better at their craft: Experiment, figure out what works and what doesn't, and get feedback.

We can debate about what teaching methods are the best and whether or not there needs to be national standards in place. But every time I hear a teacher complain about teaching kids these days, the words I hear most often are "we test too much."

That should tell us something about how we are going the wrong way with learning -- and that we authors and writers should look back at our own writing experiences and know what was the real way we learned.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Newspapers Still A Promotional Avenue If You Understand Local Ties

I've written for newspapers for more than 20 years. Mostly small-town publications, but still, they are part of an industry that some would say is dying, and others would say is still trying to figure out how adapt to today's environment, where technology rules.

Regardless of what you think, it's true what has been said for aspiring authors that it's tougher to get exposure through printed publications. When it comes to newspapers, most of them are no longer doing book reviews. True, there are thousands of websites and blogs that will review books and do author profiles, but a more detailed story about an author and his or her book is still something that can make a writer feel good, particularly when the writer of the article can give it a personal touch that the book writer wants to give to his or her own work!

As someone who has written for small-town newspapers for so long, I can tell you that what really drives newspapers these days, and draws the attention of their writers, is local news. That's particularly true about the smaller communities where I have lived, in which few people from larger outlets will regularly cover what's important to them.

So such publications sound like a good opportunity for writers to promote their work. But keep in mind that, because these newspapers focus on local information, you need to remember how to tie your book in with the local community.

I'll go back to my days when I worked in Raton, N.M. I cannot tell you how many times I got press releases e-mailed about events taking place in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, or telling me about people with local ties, when those people lived in those cities. The problem was, neither city qualified as local, because Raton was 200 miles away! Then there were people who saw that I was a sports editor and sent queries, asking if I would want to review a book or talk to an author. The only problem: Most of these authors had no ties to Raton. They may have written about topics that I had explored in an occasional column, but if I was going to do stories about books or interviews with authors for the paper, I wanted a local tie.

That brings me to the time when an author brought by a copy of his book called Ghost Town Basketball. It was about basketball programs at schools that no longer existed, because the towns had dried up. Many of those teams had been near Raton and other communities the newspaper covered. The author had visited the Raton Museum and talked to several people in the area to do his research.

Now we are getting somewhere! We have a topic that will interest some local readers, the topic covers communities that local readers would be familiar with, and the people who the author interviewed were known to those readers. That's a book a local newspaper will want to write about, and that's exactly what I did.

So now that you understand a little more about the importance of local ties to most newspapers, here are those ties that will tell you whether or not you want to promote a book to a newspaper.

1. Does the author have strong ties in the city, town or county the newspaper in located? There are three strong ties that matter: The author lives there, the author was born and grew up there, or the author lived in that area for a long period of time (at least 10 years). People know who the author is and will be interested to learn about a book the author has written. Keep in mind, though, that "local" doesn't mean "same state."

2. Does the author's book prominently talk about the city, town or county, or about a major attraction there? Going back to Raton, a work of fiction set in Raton will hold interest, because people will be interested to know why the author chose Raton for the setting. If it's a nonfiction work about, for example, the Philmont Scout Ranch, a popular Boy Scout camp located near Raton, that's a book the local media will likely want to feature because people know the importance of the camp to the local area.

3. Does the book feature a topic that holds strong interest to the local residents? This is where you really need to do your research to know how much interest the book will hold to readers. Sticking with Raton, I can tell you the local baseball team draws much interest. But that doesn't mean your book about high school baseball will necessarily draw attention, especially if you wrote about a team hundreds of miles away. On the other hand, Raton once had a horse racing track called La Mesa Park and the residents still hope for horse racing to return. So there might be interest in a book about the history of horse racing, particularly if La Mesa Park is mentioned frequently. Remember, the stronger the local tie, the better.

Newspapers can still be an avenue for an author, agent or publisher to promote material. Just make sure you understand the importance of local ties before you start contacting those outlets.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Fantastic Four Problem: It's The Writing

Any comic book geek out there is likely aware of all the negative reviews surrounding the newest Fantastic Four film, and I've read plenty of remarks about how Fox needs to quit trying to reboot the film and let Marvel Studios get more control so that studio can figure out how to make it work.

While it's true that Fox doesn't want to give up the distribution rights to Fantastic Four films, that really isn't the problem with poor films about the superhero team. Switching full control to Marvel and Disney isn't going to solve the problem by itself. All one has to do is look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has it shares of weak films. Incredible Hulk is forgettable, Iron Man 2 was a mess and Thor 2 was not good at all -- and in each case, you had a different company who held distribution rights at the time the film was released. Fact is, any studio can distribute a bad film.

And while it may be true that Sony's unwillingness to cede distribution rights for Spider-Man led to a reboot coming too soon, there's no guarantee Sony turning everything back to Marvel and Disney would have solved anything (and nothing is guaranteed now that Spidey will be part of the MCU). Besides, the second Amazing Spider-Man film suffered from the same problem the three weak MCU films had, and the Fantastic Four films have: Subpar writing.

Let's stick with Fantastic Four. The problem with the first film released to theaters was that it had the right idea of being a lighthearted film with a dark undertone, but it had the wrong execution with lightheartedness. Rather than letting the characters drop one-liners here and there and drop a humorous note when the time was right, it went for too many visual gags and put the characters in embarrassing situations. I never saw the second film, but the latest reboot decided to make everything with a dark tone, and that makes movie goers weary when every single superhero flick has that tone.

Furthermore, the first film did a poor job executing the relationship between Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm. The former is supposed to be enamored with his superpowers and be reckless and impulsive, in contrast to Grimm, who is not happy with his superpowers but mostly does things by the book. In the first film, Storm is turned into a jerk who picks on Grimm just because he can. Additionally, the first film didn't effectively portray the relationship between Reed Richards and Sue Storm, in that the two really like each other, but Richards wraps himself up too much in his research that Sue wonders if he really pays attention to her. They instead did a love triangle with Victor Von Doom and it didn't hit the same notes.

Speaking of which, Doctor Doom is the other issue with the Fantastic Four films. It's understandable that you aren't going to make Doom's origin what it was in the comics (a mysterious dictator of an Eastern European nation, which dates back to the Cold War), but in the first film, they made him a greedy, egotistical businessman who was a bigger jerk than Johnny, but failed to make him sympathetic to a degree. The first Iron Man did a better job of taking an egotistical businessman (Obadiah Stane) and making him a little sympathetic, because you can sense he wanted to run Stark Industries after Tony Stark's father Howard passed away, only for Tony to take over. It's a trait that people can relate to (I'm better qualified than the person who got the promotion or who runs the show) as opposed to a general stereotype that the common person can't really identify with (businessmen are greedy because they are).

If Fantastic Four is ever going to succeed as a film franchise, it simply needs writers who understand how to write a lighthearted film with dark undertones and how to make the personalities play off each other, while keeping the superheroes likeable. Trying to reinvent Dr. Doom is a tougher challenge, though, and that may be the biggest hurdle to getting Fantastic Four to work in film.

But while I've wondered whether or not Fox will come to a deal to get Fantastic Four tied into the MCU, that has more to do with what Sony's thinking may be (tying Spidey into MCU will get people interested again) and less to do with it improving the quality of the film. And if Fox decides to tie it to the X-Men, it does need to keep in mind that the Fantastic Four should be a contrast to the X-Men (many of them are supposed to be brooding, although some to a lesser degree than others), not just another group who finds nothing but despair.

To the point, though: Fantastic Four needs to be done in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy if it's going to work. GotG got it right with doing a lighthearted film with dark undertones. Fantastic Four needs that, and it starts with the writing, not with the studio distributing it.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Book Review: Rain of the Ghosts

I previously wrote about how Greg Weisman influenced my writing and ideas, and as a fan of his work, I was intrigued by his first novel Rain of the Ghosts.

A brief background before I get to the novel: Rain of the Ghosts was originally envisioned as a TV show but the project fell through. Weisman later rewrote the show as a novel but couldn't find anyone interested. After he had finished work on the series Young Justice, he went back to the novel, did a rewrite and found an interested publisher. (See, other writers can relate to Weisman with the tale of writing a novel, not finding interest and having to revisit and rewrite it later.)

As for the novel itself, it focuses on the adventures of Rain Cacique, who lives with her family in the Prospero Keys, a chain of islands on the edge of the Bermuda Triangle. Her grandfather Sebastian passes away while she is out with her best friend Charlie Dauphin and a girl the two met the day before, Miranda. Prior to his death, Sebastian gave Rain a gold band with two intertwined gold snakes. After his death, Rain realizes she can see ghosts and the band allows her to communicate with them, notably her own grandfather. From there, it leads to an adventure in which Rain must solve a mystery dating back to World War II.

The novel's biggest strength is Weisman understanding how teenagers think, particularly at a young age, and he does a good job bringing Rain and Charlie to life. I empathized with Rain and her relationship with her grandfather, and you understand Charlie enough to know he's conflicted between how long he's known Rain and what he thinks about Miranda upon first meeting her.

Another strength is how Weisman takes the concept of magical characters but keeps it grounded in the real world. He does a good job describing the Prospero Keys environment and I can tell he thoroughly researched what the area was like.

The novel is written from the omniscient viewpoint, which may not appeal to some readers. I've had discussions with others about the danger of "head hopping" before, but the counterpoint is many novels do a good job with that viewpoint. In Weisman's case, I think his portrayal of younger characters and his world building make up for the challenge with omniscient narration.

Rain of the Ghosts is the first in a series of nine planned novels. The second novel, Spirits of Ash and Foam, has also been released, and a third novel is on the way. After reading the first two (and yes, a review of the second novel is forthcoming), I am intrigued to see what twists and turns Weisman will take next.

You can order Rain of the Ghosts on Amazon or check your local bookstore.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Don't Be Afraid To Take A Day Off

As we authors plug away at our manuscripts and set goals for how many words we want to write in a day, we sometimes forget it's OK to take a break in the middle of a manuscript.

My job sometimes forces me to take a day off from writing my book, but it's more than just ensuring your commitments outside of writing. Sometimes, it can be beneficial to step away from your writing and get some focus back.

When I first thought of ideas for my book, it usually took place when I was taking a walk, mowing the lawn or shopping for groceries. Taking time to do those things, and not just sitting in front of your notepad or laptop, can be a good way to generate some ideas.

It's good to set goals for how much writing you want to get in a day, especially as you are getting further into your rewrites and edits. But get too caught up in your writing and you might lose sight on certain ideas that can make your story flow better.

Briefly touching upon my book, I have a chapter that will include some scenes that will be written differently from what I originally had in mind. Tonight, when I go out to mow the lawn, I'll have the chance to think about what I want to write, and continue to think about those things when I go out to run errands in the morning. Then, I hope to sit down and write out some of that material.

And, yes, I found it does help to step away from your completed draft for a while, to see if things are really coming together as you want them. But it can help just as much to do it when a draft is underway.

So don't be afraid to take a day off from writing. It might mean one day lost toward how soon you complete your draft, but it could result in greater gain for how strong your draft turns out.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Sometimes You Have To Cut Something Out

So the fifth draft of my book is at more than 15,000 words, six-and-a-half chapters and about 43 pages. As I've gone through edits and revisions, I've made the hard choice that other writers often make: cutting some stuff out.

As the first book is part of a planned trilogy, I had a lot of characters I wanted to introduce along the way. However, I had one character I planned to introduce in the first book, but have decided to push back that character to the second book. He's not entirely out of the picture, but he is out of the first book. The reason I eliminated him was because I decided that some of his involvement wasn't going anywhere, but he becomes more important as the trilogy continues.

There is another character I had wanted to involve a lot in the first book, but now his role will be significantly reduced. This is because I decided that his involvement was repeating material that was covered by another character. So it was better to use him as a fairly insignificant character who only plays importance to a scene or two. This allowed me to put the focus on other characters who carry greater importance in the trilogy.

Finally, there were certain plot points I wanted to address, but I determined they dragged down the story too much. So a lot of them will be pushed back in the later installments of the trilogy.

As I have read what others have wrote, and talked to other people, I now understand why sometimes you have to get rid of certain characters, elements and concepts in order to sharpen the focus of your story.

With this said, it's fine when you are completing initial drafts of a story to throw out whatever you want. That's because it's the only way you will figure out what works and what doesn't work. You might find a character who you thought would be insignificant, instead be a compelling character who demands greater involvement in the story.

Even if you don't, you'll learn what can be removed to allow you to focus on more important details. And if you plan sequels, you can always introduce certain elements you eliminated, if you believe they can still build the world or plots you want to develop.

Cutting is never an easy task, but I've learned why it's essential to writing a good novel.

(Note: Yes, I'm being cryptic about the details, because I'm not ready to reveal them yet. Once I have a draft I'm ready to submit to agents, I may share more details, perhaps even a preview of the first chapter. In the meantime, I hope to have a book review up for you by the weekend.)