Monday, November 19, 2012

Foreshadowing, imagery, characters and what’s next

I was starting to wonder about an event that will happen in the second quarter of the WIP.  To do this, I needed to pull a recurring character onstage, one who hadn’t been seen since Seen Sean? And I needed to begin foreshadowing a major event that happens later on.

So I picked up the character, put her in a scene in a natural way. And I had no idea where to go from there.

So I spent time noticing what she noticed.  And I still didn’t know how to foreshadow what’s coming later.

So I thought some more.

And then I realized that what she noticed is already a symbol for the situation as it is now: Outwardly, everything is going along normally, but pressure is building behind the scenes, and the slightest disruption can make the whole thing fall apart.

If you ever read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you’ll recall a conversation between Aronnax and Nemo about how glass is strong but fragile.  What my character tells the MC is that her job is like that, little realizing that the MC is in just such a position.

What do you think? Does that accomplish enough?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A plea to ebook publishers

I have at least 3 books on my Kindle in each of which the font is specified by the book, i.e., the the user has lost control of the presentation of the text.

See, in a physical book, someone (a worker, a craftsman, an artist) makes the presentation choices for the reader because there’s a physical product that has to be delivered. But in an ebook — and I mean a book of words: zero or few graphics (other than the cover); zero or few simple, narrow tables — the only point is the words. Almost all books are filled with plain, Roman text, with the occasional italics or boldface in the running text. (Chapter and section headings don’t count in this discussion).

If you’re publishing a book of plain text, please, I beg you, leave the font to the reader’s discretion: the face, the size, the line spacing.  These give the reader the ability to adjust the comfort level and get to the words.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why do I write traditional mysteries?

Thrillers are bigger.
Young Adult (i.e., fiction for high-schoolers) is bigger.
Romance is bigger. (Ignore the howls of laughter from my wife.)
Paranormal romance is bigger.
Heck, zombies are bigger.
And yes, I know erotica is bigger. (But I wouldn’t read that, much less write it.)

So why write traditional mysteries (sometimes called cozy mysteries)?

2 reasons:

  • It’s what I love to read. I don’t mean that I read mysteries exclusively. This year I have read (partial list):
    • A Tale Of Two Cities
    • The Lord Of The Rings
    • The Hunger Games (all 3 books)
    • 212
    • The Bible (I will finish the entire thing by the end of the year. It’s a foundational document for our society, and to understand the West, you must understand this book.)
    • The Red House Mystery
    • All The Blue-Eyed Angels
    • No Time To Run
    • Invisible
    • Vimana
    • Prophecy (ARKANE thriller by J.F. Penn)
    • The Space Between
    • Creative Spirit
    • Disintegration
    • Doctrine of the Trinity (John Owen)
    • Brainrush II
    • Storm World: Speaker Of The Gods
    • The Flinch
    See: Thrillers, YA, supernatural, SF, religious works, and, yes, mysteries. I didn’t like all these equally. One I would warn you off of because of the quality of the writing; in one I would warn you of the content.
  • Traditional mysteries are appropriate for a very broad audience. I fell in love with the genre in late elementary or early junior high school. My great uncle, T.O. Dahl (who attended the US Naval Academy with Robert Heinlein), lived across the street from us; he loaned me copies of several books by Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. I was hooked.
  • Mysteries, as a form, give almost infinite possibilities in story telling: All the categories that are currently “bigger” can be subsumed in the archetypal seeking for truth. Or a story that is primarily in another genre can have elements of a mystery. (Will Katniss wind up with Gale or Peeta?)

Why traditional mysteries? Why not noir or supernatural or hard-boiled or juvenile or …?

That’s easy: To have to broadest appeal. Look: fundamentally I’m telling human stories. So in Unthinkable, everybody knows the dotcom-bust victim; everybody knows the alpha-girl in high school; detective shows are so popular that a tall, handsome detective who cracks wise is easy to picture.

So that’s why. How have I done?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Turning a genre meme on its ear

You know that scene where the detective gathers the suspects for the big revelation? Hercule Poirot almost always staged one of those scenes, beginning with AC’s first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles.

I remember the day I was thinking about how those scenes seemed contrived, artificial.  Two weeks later, I was writing one of them for Seen Sean?

I did my best to turn the meme sideways:  People come and go throughout the scene; one of my main characters gets a strong slap on the face; one of the series’s recurring charcters wants to kill someone; and in the end, no one (else) dies or goes to jail.

What do you think?  Did I pull it off?

Monday, October 15, 2012

First novel as autobiography (sort-of)

It is said that every writer’s first novel is autobiographical to some extent.  While none of the events of Unthinkable happened in the real world, the autobiographical aspect comes into the descriptions of the grief of the victim’s family.

When the direction of the story became obvious to me (this was early on), and I knew that writing about the emotions experienced by Barbara Penfield’s family would have to be displayed in some measure, I had to draw parameters around what I would describe.
  • It would draw on the grief I felt over my father’s suicide.
  • It would not be tawdry or maudlin.  On the contrary, restraint was the key to authenticity.
  • Since this was a murder mystery (not lit-fic or chick-lit), simple external description would be sufficient.  Barbara’s family would have to stay on stage, since they were involved (ahem!) in the murder’s solution.
  • When it was time for the emotional cloud to lift, it would be through an experience the family shared.
  • When, after the solution is known, a reconciliation occurs, it would only come with regret.
If you’ve read Unthinkable, how did I do?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dual main characters

When I started the Mason & Penfield Mysteries I had this notion that there were 2 people, John Mason and Ron Penfield, who would share protagonist duties.  But I wanted to avoid a certain number of relationship types that had been done before:

  • Mentor/protégé — This has been done a lot. (If you’re is tempted to say mentee rather than protégé, be warned: I have snipers hiding in the ceiling where you’re reading this.  Capiche?)  Mason, the police detective, has a protégé, but he is (mostly) used as Mason’s extension.
  • Movie/drinking/sports fan/etc buddies — This relationship is too casual to make sense for a murder mystery series.
  • Strangers who meet and combine forces — I find this more plausible than the recreational buddies above; it offers plenty of opportunity for tension between the dual (duelling?) MCs.  But every conflict would be a surprise to them as well as to the reader. I wanted more familiarity between them.
  • Partners — Again, there is plenty of room for conflict, but without some hook (like the detectives on the TV show Common Law), it’s difficult to make them unique.
  • A/B partners — i.e., one partner starts the investigation, then turns it over to the other.  While this provides structure, there’s no reason for the 2 people to not be 1, since they function as 1 anyway.
  • Husband/wife — think Tommy & Tuppence. Don’t think Hart To Hart.

What I settled on was 2 guys who were former co-workers, and who had a grudge between them, a grudge caused by one’s misbehavior; who had gone down separate career paths in the meantime. In Unthinkable, Mason is forced to investigate Penfield; by the end, each understands the other a little better. A few months later, in Seen Sean?, their friendship is strained by Penfield’s actions, but they wind up cooperating to reveal the killer.

My WIP (work in progress), [title redacted] is starting out a little differently: We begin with a dead body and lots of police procedure.  This puts Mason center stage, and at my current point (about 20% of the first draft is complete), Penfield is just stepping onto the stage.

Two questions:
  • What do you think about the interplay between Mason and Penfield?
  • What other dual protagonist types can you think of?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A writing goal I failed at

In my previous post, I mentioned the parameters I set around the Christian content of Unthinkable and Seen Sean? One goal that I tried and failed at:
  • No explicit Christian “message”. When I got to Barbara Penfield’s funeral in Unthinkable, I needed to give John Mason, my (non-Christian, actually lightweight, Americanized Zen Buddhist, meaning he meditates frequently) police detective, something to react to, so we hear a little of the Reformed minister’s funeral sermon before Mason wanders off into his own thought.
What do you think: Did I go too far?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

About my characters’ Christianity

If you’ve read Unthinkable or Seen Sean?, you know that one of my main characters, Ron Penfield, is a Christian. When I decided to make the Penfields share my religion (no term-quibbling here, please), I had to set parameters for how I would and would not allow Christianity to shape my stories.  It comes down to a few things:
  • Nobody hears voices. (I once listened to a Christian radio mystery, and thought the visions the “detective” had were a Deus ex Machina, literally. Father Brown, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot never had visions, and all 3 were explicitly Christians.)
  • Characters must be imperfect.
  • Conclusions must satisfy, but they must be imperfect.
  • No cuteness.
  • Avoid “on-camera” conversions. I’ve seen this done badly in the 2 or 3 Christian novels I’ve read, and I want to avoid it unless I can write it well.
If you’ve read either book, how did I do?

Friday, July 6, 2012

A note about writing process

When I was writing Unthinkable, I had a pretty good idea where the story was going. Since it was my first novel, it took me about a year and a half as I filled it out and brought the story up to the expectations a reader should have, i.e., I sort of worked with a natural feel for what it should be.

When I wrote Seen Sean?, I have to confess that I wasn’t really sure what the outcome was going to be, so I wrote rather aimlessly. As a result, it took me about four years to write it.

There’s no reason for a genre novel of that length to take that much time. I learned my lesson. So with a bit of thought and some reading about story structure, plotting, etc., I found a "structure sheet" for my next Mason & Penfield Mystery, [title redacted]. Rather than getting a presentation board and sticky notes (the method I used to repair Seen Sean?), I set the structure thing up in a spreadsheet, as shown here. (Blurring in the image is intentional, naturally).

I.e., there are eighty blocks, divided into eight equal groups. Think of each block as a scene. A turning point comes at the end of each of these eight groups, a major turning point at the quarters. Notice there is something in the last scene of each block (except at the very end, where I left room for an epilog). The earlier blocks are filled in more thoroughly than the later blocks because I expect to learn things about the characters, have additional plot ideas, etc., as I write that will help fill in the later blocks — indeed, this has already happened with a character I realized needed to take a turn I had not expected; I can now write this character with a little better notion of where he’s going.

Notice there are some boxes that have some red text in them: The red color indicates the important story points (plot, story, theme, character, whatever) that are established in that scene. Where a scene has green text, I know there needs to be something on a particular subject that happens or is revealed or is foreshadowed or … but I know what the kind of thing is.

Will you share any thoughts on how your process is structured?

Monday, June 11, 2012

A book I’m not reviewing

I am currently reading a book in the Apocalyptic Fantasy subgenre that I won’t be reviewing. (Note: Capitalization of, or even use of, the term Apocalyptic does not imply that this is a Christian book. The best I can tell, it isn’t.) It is, to the 50% or so point that I reached today, morally “clean” (the protagonist-narrator at one point mentions in passing wishing to visit his girlfriend’s bed — and that reference is as far as it goes); the language, while sometimes strong, is like a medium bad day at work for me (YMMV).

Why won’t I be reviewing it?

Simple: I don’t post reviews of books I don’t like, and the writing is driving me nuts.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, and if my current read is typical of the genre (or subgenre), I won’t be reading much more.

This book was free on Kindle when I got it, and that may or may not have something to do with my complaints (which I’ll get to specifically in a minute); some of the free books I’ve gotten on Kindle have been quite good. Search for my reviews on GoodReads or KindleBoards to see examples.

So what is driving me crazy? This is the second novel-length fantasy I’ve read (that’s not YA), and if these two books are a proper indication, the genre lives for description. Now, I know description is a weakness in my writing, but when it’s slathered on thicker than peanut butter (on a good peanut butter sandwich — I like a lot of peanut butter), reading becomes tiring. But it’s worse than that for the current read (which I’m not reviewing, see above): the quality of the description varies widely even within the same page, from “What the heck is the author trying to say here?” to “That’s sheer genius!” (NB: The other fantasy I read was much better in its use of description, but still tiring in its overuse of it, IMNSHO.)

As a side note, this book also has inconsistencies in spelling.

I suppose this is really a warning about editing. Here are the takeaways:

  • If you’re writing in a genre you enjoy reading in, read your book until you like it. Work on it until you would pay actual money for it.
  • If you can’t take the editor’s viewpoint (“I hate this book, but I can turn it into a book I like”) get a blinkin’ editor!
  • If you’re using a word processor (Open/Libre/M$ Office), trust your spelling checker. If you have to make up words, add them (when spelled correctly) to the dictionary.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012

My self-publishing process: Page breaks

I have continued work on preparing Seen Sean? for publication. The phase I’m in now, formatting the PDF for the print book, is fixing bad page breaks. I am about 50% done with this subtask.

I’m typesetting the text in 10-point Computer Modern (really a great workaday font that’s not Times) with generous baselines. The paper size, 5¼×8", While typical for a trade paperback, is a little tight on space and robs some flexibility from pagination. Widows and orphans (a single line of a multi-line paragraph at the bottom or top of a page, and no, I can never remember which is the orphan and which is the widow) are commonplace, especially where paragraphs are short, e.g., in dialog.

LaTeX gives me a way to deal with this: the \enlargethispage macro. This macro allows me to enlarge a page (surprise!) by a defined amount that is given as a parameter to the macro call. The only parameters I have used so far are \baselineskip (to enlarge) and −\baselineskip (to shrink).

What is the heuristic (rule of thumb) that tells me when to grow a page and when to shrink one? The rule, which has been sufficient so far, is this:

  • If a single line from the beginning of a paragraph is left at the bottom of a page, shrink.
  • Otherwise, if a single line from the end of a paragraph is left at the top of a page, grow.

Notice that shrinking the page by 1 line is preferred. Shrinking or growing the page this way does not affect the overall page layout in any other way. In particular, the page number stays in the same place, glued to the bottom of the page, centered.

How do I iterate this process? As I page through the PDF, I find a bad break; this happens on about ⅓–½ of pages. Looking at the bottom of page n and the top of page n+1, I decide whether to shrink or grow the page. I switch windows into MacVim (or vile, depending on my mood that day) and insert the needed macro. (The 2 versions were previously saved in separate paste registers.) Then in a terminal window, I reformat the entire book. Finally, I switch back to Preview to see the result and look for the next bad break.

This has to be iterated over every page break, because, for instance, if I shrink a page, that means a line is added at the top of the next page, which may turn a bad break good or a good break bad.

Each page break takes much less than 1 minute to correct. The formatting from LaTeX source to PDF (which is what you’re probably balking at) takes about 1 second for the entire 278-page book. The number of pages has not changed so far, since the rearranged splits are buffered at the ends of chapters.

Of course, this doesn’t affect the e-books at all.

Why go through all this? Respect for the reader. I realize that very few of my sales will be paper books, but that is not a reason to treat those readers shabbily. Requiring at least 2 lines of each paragraph be on the same page physically eases reading.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My self-publishing process: 2. The back-cover text

For the next episode of the adventure, we explore typesetting the text that goes on the back cover of the paperback. This text will also be the main text that appears on the sales web sites, i.e., Amazon, B&N, etc.

I constructed the cover in The Gimp. Gimp uses layers, masks and transparency to organize your project in a manner similar (I’m told) to Photoshop. The overall cover design was complete some time ago, though I made one slight adjustment in how the photograph is masked.

The back-cover text, however, I just finished writing a few days ago, so I felt it was time to get it incorporated.

Seriously geeky stuff ahead. You’ve been warned.

The cover is made up of more than a dozen different pieces, each in its own graphical layer: the radial gradient background; each part of the text in a slightly peculiar handwriting font; the photograph, masked to an oval shape so only the model’s eyes are showing, but blurred at the edges into the background. All this is laid out on a template CreateSpace provides. CreateSpace will add the bar code after I have submitted the artwork. (I’m using the wrong template right now; more on that below.)

I had choices for how the back cover would be typeset:

  • I could pull the (almost) completed project into some Adobe something (likely Photoshop).
  • I could type the text into a text box in The Gimp.
  • I could properly typeset the text and drop in the typeset copy. This gives proper kerning, hyphenation (needed for short lines).

In the end, I chose the last option because it would get me there the fastest with the bestest result.

I put the text into a LaTeX article document and began experimenting with typesetting options: Font family, font size, text width. Eventually I settled on

  • The cmss font (Computer Modern Sans Serif), the font in which the chapter headings will be set in the book’s interior; it is a TeX staple. I got this by putting a command \sffamily around each paragraph.
  • Font size: 14-15 points. For this, I used the [12pt] article option, then put a \large command inside each parpagraph. (Note to whining purists: This was six short paragraphs — not enough in my mind to trouble about doing it the “right” way.)
  • I set the text width to 25em (based on the 12pt document option) by experimenting with it and pasting it (as outlined below) into the cover file until it looked “about right” to me.

I typeset the copy by running it through pdflatex, which embeds scalable fonts in the PDF, then opened it in The Gimp. When importing a Postscript or PDF document, Gimp gives you a choice in the resolution of the import. Through experimentation I selected 300 DPI, the same as the resolution of the CreateSpace cover template.

Once the file was imported (in a separate graphics file), I cropped it to just the text I wanted, i.e., disposing of the excess margins, page number, etc. (See comments above about doing it the right way.)

But the PDF import assumes the ink color is black and the paper color is white and both are opaque. That would be great if the back cover (at least) were going to be solid white, but in this case it was a recipe for ugly. So I took the cropped graphic of the text and inverted the colors, i.e., white became black and vice versa, and the brightness of grayscales was inverted, e.g., 25% white became 75% white.

Back in the book cover file, I created a new layer and added a layer mask that would give me full transparency. I pasted the “text graphic” not into the visible layer, but into the layer mask. See, a layer mask in the Gimp uses black for the transparent part of the layer, white for the opaque part of the layer, and partial transparency is done with shades of gray. So with the background of the text being black in the layer mask only the lettering would show, and that in whatever color I painted the foreground of the layer.

I did it this way for two reasons: to overcome the PDF black/white problem noted above, and to experiment with the color of the text. My brilliant idea was to have the text set in a gradient with enough contrast to the cover background to make it easily readable. But as with so much in life, the proof is in the pudding (in this case readability), not in the recipe. In the end, the back cover has solid white text over the gradient background.

One final note: I’m using the wrong CreateSpace template at this time because I don’t know how many pages will be in the final paperback. The only difference will be in the spine width, so when I know the actual page count, and thus can obtain the correct template, I will just need to rearrange the cover parts slightly to get the layout correct.

Monday, March 5, 2012

My self-publising process: 1. Self-editing

For the next few days, I’m going to explain here the steps I’m going through to get Seen Sean? out the (virtual) door. If you’re not interested, please ignore.

Okay, I have a manuscript. It has been through writes and rewrites, storyboarding, proofreading by three different individuals, and two more editing passes by me. In this post, I’ll tell you why I self-edit, and I’ll give a brief description of the final editing passes.

Why do I self-edit? Just one reason: Cost. A professional editor would charge about 2000 USD to work over a 60,000-word manuscript. I haven’t got that much to spend (and Seen Sean? is longer than that anyway), so I self-edit.

After I got the results from my proofreaders (Thanks Becky, Cathy and Andrew!) I printed a full manuscript for myself (single-spaced, two column text, just short of 100 pages) and went through it with a red pen. I hoped that would be my final pass, but alas! there were way too many edits. I knew I would have to do it all again.

But before the final pass, I decided to correct something I saw as I read: I used dashes (em-dashes “—”, not hyphens “-”, not minus signs “−”, not en-dashes “–”) and ellipses (that funny little thing of the three dots, “…”, which my wife pronounces “dah-dah-dah”) a lot, especially in dialog. So I started a pass, in the original computer file this time, to check just those bits of punctuation. As I see it, the dash means an interrupted thought; the ellipsis indicates a drawn out or incomplete thought.

As I got close to the end of that check I realized this: I use dashes and ellipses way too much. So I took the only reasonable course: I went through the entire manuscript again asking whether there was a better way to punctuate each use, and in some cases whether there was a better, more natural way to word the dialog, or in a few cases, action. There was a better way about 90% of the time.

Because of the amount of red ink on the last paper edit, I decided one more read-through was needed. I knew the manuscript was getting close with the punctuation straightened out, but I knew the story needed a final check.

So I formatted the manuscript into a .mobi file and side-loaded it onto my Kindle (a Kindle Keyboard wifi, née Kindle 3). I read Seen Sean? the way I read other people’s books, looking for wording that makes me cringe. I found about 180 problems, plus one (!) misspelling and one or two incorrect names, and noted everything using the Kindle’s highlighting and note-taking feature. I corrected everything, and now the manuscript is ready for the next step.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

Back cover copy for Seen Sean?

Below is a first crack at the back-cover copy for Seen Sean?, the next installment in the Mason & Penfield Mysteries. I am not completely satisfied with it. Can you offer any suggestions?

When Senator Charles Jamison dies in an apparent accident in Afghanistan, some people mourn, some rejoice.

But when Sean McCloskey, an Atlanta teenager, overhears a conversation implying Jamison was murdered, he neither rejoices nor mourns. He disappears.

Detective John Mason is assigned to find Sean, but there don’t seem to be any clues anywhere — until Sean begins calling his family. Sean's cell phone is only turned on for a few minutes each day, but the places he calls from seem weirdly random — all over metro Atlanta and beyond.

Can Mason find the link between Sean’s disappearance and the dead senator? Will justice finally be served?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Available in more places!

My ebook distributor has announced that they have added new distribution channels: Kobo and Copia. The links will be added to the book pages as soon as I know they've gone live. Of course, all the original venues (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and Sony) still have Unthinkable, and you can always comparison shop the paperback at

UPDATE 2012-01-25
The Kobo and Copia versions will be available starting around the second week of February. I'll announce something definite when Unthinkable actually appears on their sites.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Unthinkable, which is already published is available now. Click through for information on how to get a copy.