Sunday, July 22, 2018

Motivation by Example

Last week we started talking about character motivations. These motivations can appear to be simple at the beginning of your story. Characters may even think so themselves at first. But you need to know the deep down reason why the opposing goals are important to these people before you begin to build your plot.  If they don’t care deeply about these goals, your reader won’t care either.  and if only one is deeply invested, we’ll wonder why the other one doesn’t just give up.

Consider rocky – Sylvester Stallone’s first sold script. I use movies as examples for two reasons: first, we are all more likely to have seen the same films than to have read the same books.  but also, the plots tend to be more transparent and easily seen.

Rocky is a boxing movie but not much of the film is taken up by fighting. It’s good evidence that conflict is not violence. What does our protagonist, Rocky, really want in that film? He wants a shot at the title. Keep that in mind, because his actual objective is important.  He also wants to prove he’s not a loser. And he wants his girl to respect him.

Our antagonist – Apollo – wants to prove once again that he is the best ever. Please note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain. He doesn’t have to be evil. And I prefer stories in which both the protagonist and the antagonist have worthy goals and are both absolutely determined to attain them.

In that context you can see that the plot of that movie is all about what Rocky is willing to do to attain those goals. Each beat in the script is about Rocky facing some obstacle to achieving one of his goals. And really, he’s not particularly good at much of anything. Consequently, each beat in the film contains a conflict that shows us how badly Rocky wants these things he is driven to have. 

Your protagonist, and maybe your antagonist too, should also have internal conflicts.  it might be okay for your villain to be willing to do whatever it takes to take over the world, get the girl or win the race, but your protagonist should have to consider his response to each challenge on a moral basis. Sure he can save the hostage by shooting the bad guy in the head, sure he can find the killer by lying to everyone about what he already knows, sure he can get the girl by flattening the other fellow’s tire… but should he? Yes many people like a totally confident protagonist, and your story might work fine without internal conflict… but it will be better with it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Good Bad Guys Make Good Good Guys

Last week I told you that when writing a short story your protagonist needs to be the center of your story, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby – which reads like a big short story anyway, and Gatsby is not the Point Of View character. But he does drive the plot and it’s his fate that gives the story its meaning. So it’s really important that you choose the right protagonist.

But how do you make that protagonist really interesting? How do you show this person’s personality when you only have a few thousand words to tell his or her story? I would suggest that the best way to illustrate the protagonist is through a strong antagonist. Remember the antagonist isn’t necessarily the bad guy. He or she is the protagonist’s opposite. Readers naturally compare people, so everything you do to characterize the antagonist creates a comparison that characterizes the protagonist. The stronger the antagonist, the more impressive the protagonist is when he wins.

Remember that without conflict, you don't have a story. Conflict drives your story forward. You may think that’s easier in a thriller or a mystery but actually it applies to all fiction worth reading.  To be clear:  conflict is not violence.  Conflict is a function of character.  It’s about motivations. Most good stories are driven by some external conflict.  The protagonist needs to do something, go someplace, get something… and the antagonist has opposing goals.

In a romance, it might be as simple as the leading lady wanting eternal love and the fellow she’s attracted to not wanting to be tied down.  In a murder mystery the hero wants to find the killer, and the killer doesn’t want to be found.  Most often in thrillers the villain’s objective kicks off the story, and the protagonist’s goal is to stop him from accomplishing that objective.  But one way or another, whatever the goals they are pursuing, they must be very very important to both the protagonist and the antagonist – and you have to let your readers know that. 

So as you consider your story idea decide what it is that your protagonist wants so badly.  Then figure out what he or she is going to have to do to accomplish that goal.  That effort, after all, is the plot.

Next, attach an emotional context to that goal.  In other words, why is it so important?  What is this person’s motivation to accomplish this goal?  Love is a motivation.  Greed is a motivation. Guilt is a motivation.  Fear, envy, jealousy, ambition are all motivations.  The need to prove something to yourself or to others is a fine motivation.  “it’s my job” is not a very good motivation for your hero. Nor is “because I’m evil” a good motivation for your villain.  Dig deeper. 

We’ll talk more about character motivations next week.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

What the story? And whose story is it?

Last wee I told you that the first step in creating a short story is to write down the story. And yes, I know that sounds silly but let me expand a bit.

A true short story has characters, plot, setting and theme. What I’m talking about now is the story as you’d tell it to me if we were having lunch together and I hadn’t seen that news story and you just wanted to bring me up to speed. We all tell stories like this all the time. I suggest that you start by writing that out, your basic story idea.  Don’t overthink it!  Don’t do research. Don’t make an outline. Write it out in one sitting.

The next step is to find your protagonist. It’s easy to assume you know the role of the protagonist. We’ve all read enough stories that we know a protagonist when we see one. But for your own story, don’t assume you already know. Step back and look at your story idea from all angles. Whose story do you want this to be. Last week I used the example of the recent flood that devastated Ellicott City. If that were a fictional story you might have already decided this is the story of the lost National Guardsman who died trying to rescue someone. But remember, the protagonist doesn’t have to be the hero. We can all agree on the protagonist in Macbeth, and he certainly is not a hero. It doesn’t even have to be the point of view character. Consider every Sherlock Holmes story. 

The protagonist is simply the person who makes choices that drive your story forward. If the character doesn’t choose his or her own fate and get the reward or suffer the consequences of those choices, then that’s not the protagonist. It’s all about a character who wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it. If the character doesn’t want something badly enough to choose to go thru the conflict your reader will be disappointed no matter how the story comes out.

More importantly, the protagonist is the person whose fate matters the most to the story. This character’s fate determines whether our story is a tragedy or not.  In this case it could be the person our hero dies saving. Or his partner who arrived too late to make the rescue attempt. Or the mayor who chose not to evacuate the city. You decide whose story it really is.

Next week we'll talk about how you can make that protagonist interesting to your readers.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Short and Sweet

My most recent short story publication is in an anthology called Camelot 13: Celebrating the Spirit ofArthur and His Knights, set to be released next month. It’s just the latest of a dozen or so that I’ve placed in various anthologies. So, even though I’m primarily a novelist, I have enjoyed developing an approach to writing shorter fiction.

But of course, I only know MY way. As sci-fi and fantasy legend Gene Wolfe said, “you never learn how to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you’re on.” I think that’s even more true of short stories. So, what I can do is give you some basics to build your foundation on. There are patterns I think that everyone can follow, in their own chaotic and haphazard way.

But before we get into details we should address another question: why write short stories? There isn’t much of a market for them. Not much money to be made on them. And they’re so limiting. So why write them? Well, I’d say… “Exactly!” Because it’s pure. When I’m writing a short story, I don’t worry about writing to a particular market. I’m not worrying about creating a blockbuster. I know the mortgage payment doesn’t hang on it. And I also know I’m not committing a year of my life to it. And if the idea isn’t working halfway thru there’s way less angst about dumping it and starting over. And I don’t have to have a whole lot to say. Writing short stories can be quite liberating.

And what do we mean by short story anyway? I’ve read definitions everywhere from 1500 words to 30,000 words. Practically, most outlets favor stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words. For me that’s a commitment of maybe 24 total hours, not a year of my life.
So, what do you need to write a story? First you need to have a story idea. Something that happens that you find interesting, or fun or thought provoking.  For example: recently the entire downtown of Ellicott City, Maryland was washed away by a massive flood. Homes and businesses were destroyed. People lost their cars and everything they owned. And among those lost was a national guard member who was trying to save someone else.  I’m sure you can see a story idea in there somewhere. So, starting with such an idea, what is the first step in creating a short story? Simple: Write down the story.

I’ll explain what I mean by that, in detail, next week.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Day in the Life of a Small Publisher

 People have asked what a small publisher does all day. Of course, like a microbrewer of beer, that’s going to vary a lot from shop to shop. But I can fill in some of the blanks for myself.

First, as I said before I am a writer first. This week I found a plot flaw in my work in progress that required me to delete a couple chapters (Owww!!) to rewrite. So, I’m still only at 53,737 words.

But I break from my own writing because I need to post on the Intrigue Publishing Facebook page. I don’t like to go a day without posting about an upcoming event for one of our authors, or a new review for one of our books.

I also try to post on the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity Facebook page daily. I talk about the reasons to attend, our about one of the attending authors. And I have my author newsletter to write and put together.

Denise Camacho is the first reader of submissions but if she thinks a book might be for us then I have to read the manuscript to evaluate it’s potential. How strong is the story? How solid are the characters? How good is the prose? This could be my most important duty to Intrigue Publishing.

If we have a book close enough to release that the Advance Reader Copies are ready, then my duties include researching bookstores within driving distance of the author’s home. I compile a list for a staff member to call and request a book signing event. Most of the time the response is a request for more information. I then prepare an email to the store manager more specifically pitching the event (with a sell sheet, the ISBN, cover, author bio and more.)

To strengthen our brand, I’m also developing an Intrigue Publishing newsletter, to keep our super fans informed and offer them a chance to win cool prizes every month. I write a review for the International Thriller Writers, Inc. every month. And I post Intrigue news on a variety of Facebook groups.

I also monitor sales, update the company book keeping, check for new reviews on Amazon that I can share on social media, and post on my own Facebook author page.

I post 10 or so tweets every day, about our books, and our authors’ events. If there are hand sales or returns from the distributor I update our inventory of books.

And, oh yes. I take some time once a week to write this blog! I hope it’s informative for you. But really, what else would you like to know? Ask away, because I’m happy to answer any questions about what small publishers do to help their authors.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Author First

As the title of this blog attests, I often describe myself as a writing publisher. It’s an easy phrase, kind of rolls of the tongue. But only now, three weeks after leaving my full time federal position and picking up the label “retiree” do I realize the false implication of that phrase.

“Writing publisher” sounds like someone who is a publisher who also writes. The problem here is that in my own head, I am a writer who also helps run a publishing company. The challenge for me is that things I do as a publisher are responsibilities. Other authors are counting on me to do those things that help their books be the best they can be, and then help their books get found by readers. The only drive to write is an internal pressure. It is far too easy to write “when there’s time” after everything else is done.

But this all started back in 1999 when a tiny company called Nitelinks published Blood and Bone not only in paper but this new idea – an electronic book. When they folded I published that book and Collateral Damage with Infinity Publishing using another new idea – Print On Demand. Yes, it was self-publishing, but it allowed me to prove that someone would pay to read my books. (Their classy URL was

Today with six novels in the Hannibal Jones series and five Stark & O’Brien thrillers there are people out there who actually ask for and anticipate the next novel. Beyond those series I wrote a well-received thriller called Beyond Blue which deserves a sequel. And I have ideas for three other novels that could be stand-alones or series depending on how they feel after I write them.

Which means I have to write them. I find publishing very rewarding but, to be honest, I write for the same reason I breathe. Because if I didn’t I would die (I’d love to take credit, but Isaac Asimov said it first,)

So, no matter what, I will carve an hour out of every day to write. Yes, I’m home now all day so I have lots of time: to work out, clean the house, check what’s on TV, wash the car, mow the lawn, feed the birds, and do actual writer stuff like my social media and writing this blog. BUT…

I’m digging in. And for those of you who are counting, I’m 52,107 words into the next untitled Hannibal Jones mystery.  Based on my typical length that’s about 65% of a novel. I’ll be fishing for beta-readers soon and looking for help with the title.

So, when you see me posting here about publishing, marketing and conferences, don’t lose sight of the fact that first and foremost I’m a writer. Because I never do.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Why Am I Here... Again?

Welcome back, strangers!

Yes, I know. I haven’t posted a blog in so long you may have forgotten I ever did. Seriously, it’s been like a year and a half. But now that I’ve retired from the day job I’m back. This will continue to be where I give you all a peek into the life of a writing publisher and wearing those two hats will more than fill my days.

So, as an author, and more, as a publisher, why do I think blogging is worth doing? Well…  it’s business.

It’s very different than when blogging started before the turn of the century. Blogs used to be a platform to share your thoughts, feelings, opinions or experiences – an online journal or diary, usually with a small following of friends. Now it’s there are millions of blogs. Because it’s easy to start one anybody can declare themselves an expert or become an entertainer. For me and a lot of other writers, it’s an important way to contact readers and others in the writing industry.

Used correctly, a blog can increase traffic to your website. As a publisher, it’s also a way to reinforce my brand. Google’s algorithms focus on a website’s content and frequency of posts. Through my blog I can increase the number of inbound links that get people to our web site, and our popular Facebook page.

As a representative of Intrigue Publishing I need to establish myself as a publishing expert. The content I post on my blog will hopefully give readers the confidence to trust in our brand and trust my expertise. 

So, blogging has moved from an individual hobby to an influential business tool. It helps a small publisher to compete with the big guys. Likewise, it helps new authors to build an audience and complete with the big names.

More personally, I have a lot of hard earned experience in this business. knowledge comes from experience, and experience comes from making dumb mistakes. YOU don't need to make all the same stupid moves I made in the past. So I’ll share what life is like for a writer trying to produce more and better prose, and for a publisher trying to get more and better novels into print, and a lot about what I've learned along the way.

I’ll be back next week to discuss my goals as an author. Then I’ll share my objectives as a small publisher. What it’s like doing business with a spouse. Then, I’ll get back into useful tips for writing short stories, writing novels, and marketing!

Stay tuned and let me know what YOU’D like me to talk about.