Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hoisted by your own petard

For those not familiar with the term, a petard was a small medieval bomb named after the French verb 'peter' (pronounced 'pet-eh') which means to create an explosion of noxious gas between the legs (I'll let you work that one out). Because the making of explosives was a very rough science in those days, petards were frequently prone to going off prematurely which is why engineers would place them and then 'run like hell'. The less experienced of these engineers would often hurriedly place their bombs and then run away in a straight line (being the shortest distance between the castle wall they were blowing up and their army’s encampment). Unfortunately a straight line is also the most likely direction for the back blast to take and that would then knock them off their feet (hoisted by their own petard) – often proving to be a fatal experience.

So, what's the connection with this article? Well, I'm looking at how easy it is for the unwary to create the objects of their own destruction and also how dangerous it is to run in a straight line; that's why I reckoned the petard was a good analogy.

Continuing the theme of explosives, once you step away from pure fiction with completely invented characters, you immediately start creating these devices. Unlike (non-recorded) speech, your written words are permanently recorded and there for everyone to read  - forevermore. This means that, at any future time, someone can take you to task if they feel you've wronged them in any way.

Just to clarify from the outset - slander is oral and libel is in writing. Your book or books may be libelous (I hope not) but they will not be slanderous (not unless you read aloud an offending passage from them). Many people mix the two up, incorrectly thinking they're interchangeable although it is perfectly possible to be guilty of both. From a legal compensatory standpoint, libel is the big one and to be hauled up for it can land you in some serious trouble.

I actually got the inspiration for this particular article from the suggestions of a 'Writing Guru' whom I'm clearly not going to mention (for fear of falling foul of my own advice) who has been recommending scouring a certain film review site, taking the plot of a popular film, changing a few elements and then packaging it up as a new story. Anyone thinking that this is as simple as it sounds should consider what happened to Men At Work and their song 'Down Under' which, it was found, infringed the copyright of Kookaburra, a song released nearly 50 years earlier.

At one point they were being threatened with having to repay about half of their profits from the song made over the previous six years although a judge later reduced this to 5% but to be an ongoing obligation.

The main issue here (from a book's perspective) is that Men At Work was released 30 years before the court case. In other words, just because your book's been out for a year or more, does not mean that you're safe. While it's fair to say that (as per the court's ruling), a retrospective claim for damages made right back to its release date might well fail, a claim that goes back 5 to 10 years has a good chance of succeeding if you are found guilty.

That's a lot of royalties and money which you may well have spent or got tied up in something. In any case, it's not a position you want to be in.

Probably needless to say, I think that merely choosing a site like Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB and then 'ripping off' a story is not only bad form, it's also verging on the suicidal.

There are a limited number of storylines (Boy meets Girl, Crime and Punishment, Ripping Yarn etc) and you aren't going to come up with an original concept because it's all been covered. However, people buy books for the way in which the story's told, the craft of the author, their usage of language and images etc so nil desperandum. By all means use IMDB et al for ideas, for market research, and for direction but don't make the mistake of thinking that you won't incur the wrath of a team of hot-shot lawyers if you come up with stories such as 'Gone With The Breeze', 'Superduperman' or 'Pirates of the Mediterranean'.

But, and I'm talking about IMDB in particular now, not only are you picking a fight with a film company and an author, you're also risking the ire of Amazon who actually own IMDB. This puts you under fire from all directions and also leaves you nursing a ticking petard.

Now, I've got this great idea for a children's book about a Kookaburra sitting in a tree ....

Clive West is author of The Road and also Hobson's Choice. He's a strong advocate of originality and not becoming yet another sheep or any creature which can be lead by the nose.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself---A review

I love a good short story collection! I was thrilled when I was sent a review copy of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's book There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, And He Hanged Himself. I mean, really. With a title like that, how could I not be curious about the contents of the book?

This is the blurb that the publisher sent me:

Petrushevskaya’s previous collection of scary fairy tales, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, was a the New York Times bestseller, winner of a World Fantasy Award, one of New Yorkmagazine’s Ten Best Books of the Year and one of NPR’s Five Best Works of Foreign Fiction. James Wood, in The New Yorker, called it “a revelation—like reading late-Tolstoy fables, with all of the master’s directness and brutal authority.”
In this new release, Petrushevskaya demonstrates how much can be said about human connection with so few words. These realist tales of women looking for love are the stories that she is best known for in Russia. Stories from this collection have been published in Harper’s, Playboy,The Paris Review and Zoetropeand the early reviews are fantastic: Elle calls it “on par with the work of such horror maestros as Edgar Allen Poe,” and Kirkus raves, “Think Chekhov writing from a female perspective.”

THERE ONCE LIVED A GIRL... is made up of seventeen fables of marriage, courtship, sex, and love: the office one-night stand that creates a baby; the awkward tryst in a communal apartment; the responsible father chased away from his family by an insane and jealous wife; and the unremarkable and predictable souls who find they have drifted inevitably into union. Romance, violence, infidelity, tenderness—Petrushevskaya has compiled all of those great narrative traditions into an elegant and macabre collection of stories that show just why she is Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer.

I was not familiar with Ms. Petrushevskaya prior to receiving this book, but reading her stories was like hanging out with a Russian Eudora Welty. She captured the gritty and dark quality of life in her country during a time filled with angst, worry, and poverty. Many of these stories are very humorous and easy to relate to, but there are other tales that are sad, heartbreaking, and poignant. Judging from the forward, it would appear that her own life was full of those things and that like so many of us, she writes about what she knows.

One of my favorite stories was called The Goddess Parker. The plot revolves around a male school teacher called A.A. He is looking for privacy but finds himself becoming friendly with an old woman named Alvetina. Through Alvetina, he meets the most important woman in his life and almost loses her. It is a simple story--one we've even heard before--but it's told in such a way that you can't help but want to read it just one more time.

Another story that stood out for me was The Fall. It's about a woman who is the bell of the ball and attracts men by just the way she tosses her hair. Through the use of her feminine wiles, we see her carry on a passionate love affair that both she and the reader know will end badly, but like a car wreck, you just can't seem to look away from it. It feels all too real.

Maybe that's the thing about Ms. Petrushevskaya's stories: they feel like people you know. Their highs, their lows--she does an excellent job of drawing the reader in to her world. That quality is what kept me reading each story.

By the way, these are short tales. I read the whole book in one sitting, but they are engaging enough to read in small spurts, too. The paperback goes on sale today at Amazon!

For a sneak peek at one of the stories in There Once Lived A Girl..., click here: A MURKY FATE   I posted this excerpt last week at All Things Writing.

Here is that Amazon buy link , too! THERE ONCE LIVED A GIRL...

Monday, January 28, 2013

Let's Make Some LSD! or Great Writing Is Where You Find It

And to think I actually read Mary Ann's "Time Management" post yesterday, only to find myself running short today! It was a great post, by the way. I'm intrigued by the idea of non-writing days and am going to look at my schedule and see what days make sense for me. I tend to either not write at all, or binge write. Both are bad habits that will have to be replaced by good ones if I'm going to go pro. Fortunately, for writers, getting a blog up should be as natural as raising taxes is for a bureaucrat. Just start waving your pen around and all of a sudden, you're there!

I tend to stay away from television. I've got probably, 300 channels. You probably to do. Or more. And let's face it, there's usually very little worth watching. The bandwidth is packed to the gills, but How It's Made is usually the best thing on. I watch some soccer on TV, but have no regular programs. And when I do, they've already been either cancelled or run their course and I buy the DVDs and watch them at my own pace. Firefly is a good example of that and proof that great writing doesn't have to be in a book. I didn't discover Firefly until five years after it had aired. Magnificent writing that my entire family enjoyed. Too bad there were only 14 episodes. It should have run for five years, like the show I discovered a few weeks ago. Of course, the final episode of that aired earlier this month so once again, I'll be buying the DVDs or watching on Apple TV.

The television show I'm talking about is Fringe that wrapped up it's five-year story arc two weeks ago. I had seen a part of the pilot at some point but wasn't in a situation where I could sit down and get sucked in. Maybe that was a mistake because they've been running them on the Science Channel in order. At any rate, I caught my first full episode about a month ago and was literally blown away by the writing. It was an episode from Season 2* that brilliantly used one of my favorite literary devices: having somebody make horrible decisions for all the right reasons and then having those decisions proceed to destroy everyone and everything around them. Except in this case, the entire universe is at stake. Other episodes I've seen since then have also been strong with well-developed characters, outstanding dialog, tight plots, and ample lines of tension running throughout.

As a writer myself I'm always looking for great writing wherever I find it. And since I tend to write thrillers that lean towards science fiction I felt it worthwhile to catch up on the series. So I sat down with my wife and a friend last night to begin our Fringe journey by watching the pilot. Were my history of never watching a TV series when it airs so solid, I'd say it's surprising that I didn't discover this sooner. Like all the other episodes I've seen it was very strong, well acted, well written, and well produced. And the acting is sublime, led by John Noble who most of us will recognize as Denethor from Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King. It was amusing seeing Denethor say with a big smile, "Let's make some LSD!" in a way that makes sense, isn't about getting high, and doesn't offend a conservative like me. That's the kind of writing I'm talking about! Surprising, creative, clever. The stuff we all try to get into our own writing. Too bad Fox did such a lousy job with advertising, then again, there's some history there too.

I'm looking forward to seeing all 100 episodes in order, though it is going to take me a while. Even though I like the show, I'm still not a big TV watcher. And, of course, I have my own writing to do, books to read, and life's other activities. I looked over the list of episodes on Wikipedia and am encouraged. The number of viewers goes down steadily as the show progresses, starting at a high of over 13 million in 2008 and ending in January of 2013 with less than three-and-a-half million. This is good news for me because it means the writing either stays strong, or improves. So why do falling numbers mean better writing? I think Hitler said it best: "To reach the broadest masses you must tell people the crudest and most stupid things." Fringe is neither stupid, nor crude, and demands that you pay attention. Good writing is where you find it, and it is always a joy to discover. Now if we could just get Joss Whedon and the crew of Serenity back together for four more seasons...

*Season 2, Episode 16: Peter

Until next time,
John C. Brewer

Friday, January 25, 2013

Writing and Time Management--They Can Be Friends

I'm very fortunate. My full time job is that of a teacher--and not just any kind of teacher. I get to teach elementary Theatre Arts. It's a position that is full of fun, always gets the creativity flowing, and allows me to work with children. I'm blessed that I see all of the 700 students at my school in grades K-5, and that I have a chance to share with them a subject area that I really love.

It's also exhausting, full of behavior problems, and, in some circles, it is a job that goes largely unappreciated. Theatre is something you can't always hold in your hand and show to another person. It's not a worksheet or a test. It can be difficult to explain the purpose of everything you do while engaged in it. Unfortunately, that makes it seem less tangible to other teachers who believe if you can touch it and feel it, then it must be good. There is a certain view that what I do is unimportant and because I don't have to record grades or deal with tons of paperwork, my job has no real value.

It's a frustrating viewpoint, but after twelve years of hearing those snide remarks, I've learned to deal with it--for the most part. Mostly, when I hear those things, it makes me realize that the other person is really unhappy with what they are doing and think you should be unhappy, too. That's just sad.

But no matter how you view it, teaching Theatre is a full time job with its ups and downs like any other job. I'm often asked how I manage to work and crank out novels. Surely, I must be writing stories on my downtime in my classroom? How else could I possibly have the time to write?

 Well, it's called time management.

If you are serious about writing or do any freelance work, then you already know where I'm going with this. In order to be a writer who can get things done and still balance a full time job and a family, you have to manage your time. You have to set a writing schedule that works for you, your family, allows you to get other things done, and also have some fun.

Then you have to stick to it.

It's taken me about six years to figure out how to make it work for me. There's been lots of trial and error along the way. At first, I would get up about four in the morning and spend two hours writing before getting my daughter up and heading to work. Then I would write in the evening for several hours, too.

That sucked. After a full day of kids--some with behavior issues--exhaustion would catch up to me and the writing would not be anywhere near quality. I also wasn't able to really spend time with my family in the evenings.

So I dropped the early morning thing and just worked evenings and some weekends. That was better, but I continued to run into the same problem of being too tired after a work day. At that point, I'd also started to make connections with freelance clients and was starting to get paid to write articles, blog pieces, short stories, etc.

Juggling all of that is a little tough when you're worn out.

As the freelance side of my life started taking off, I realized I needed to look at it as more of a business and set up some rules for myself. I decided to only work on writing Saturday-Tuesday. The other days were off days where my brain could recharge. I set aside specific hours on Saturday and Sunday where I could get the bulk of my work done and then used Monday and Tuesday as "tweaking" days.

That schedule has made a world of difference! I can enjoy my full time job as a teacher, spend time with my family, and still get the writing for pleasure and business done.

It does take discipline. Not to mention drive and determination. However, if you want something bad enough, you'll do what you have to in order to make it happen. It's a commitment and I try to stick to it no matter what. Sure, I have days where things don't get done, and I sometimes have to shift things around in order to meet my obligations.

I never write at work--not even in my off time. Yes, I do check email or my blog stats. What can I say? It's a weakness, I know. But no writing. Daytime work is about theatre and kids. Nighttime is for writing.

If you are struggling with balancing your day job with your writing world, start looking at ways to manage your time better. It might mean having to give up something or asking your spouse for help with the kids, but if writing is something you want to embrace, you can only do that by making time for it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Near enough is good enough

I used to run an employment agency for teachers and I'll never forget a reply I once got to a rejection letter. I think this and the thought processes which lay behind it are highly relevant to the business of writing.

Being in charge of recruitment and also being renowned for speaking plainly, I would summarily reject any teacher whose covering letter or CV (resume to US readers) contained spelling or grammar errors. From my perspective, these people would one day represent us and I felt duty-bound to screen out candidates who didn't meet suitable standards. I also saw nothing wrong with informing the individuals about why I wasn't prepared to consider their applications further.

The reply that I shall always remember was far from being the only one nor was it necessarily the worst - it's just that I feel it epitomises a certain attitude.

"I hadn't realized it mattered."

What an epitaph! A true message to be remembered by.

The point is that it's not an acknowledgement of the existence of errors made nor is it a recognition that the very making of any errors is unacceptable, it's a bald statement which says that the writer of the quote has no concept of standards.

Part of the problem with the likes of Amazon and the 'Gold Rush' that is self-publishing is that every man and his dog thinks that they can write. We all know that's not true, of course, but try telling that to the Hoi Polloi. Deep inside I believe that the would-be gurus are absolutely correct in their statement that the 'cream will rise' but that's cold comfort when you see books that you'd put your eyes out rather than read ranking above something which you know has quality and substance.

I think the real issue lies in how we've been brought up. Parents, for example, often fall into one of two categories - the "Oh, darling, that's wonderful. I'm so proud," (even when the child has only made an amateurish effort) and "You can do better than this!" (when the child has worked hard and struggled). Neither stance is helpful when you’ve become an adult. Public exams further reinforce the idea that there are grades of passing “You got a ‘B’ – that’s marvellous!”

As a writer, you are both employee and employer, student and examiner, leader and disciple. You must set your standards high and live up to them. If, in doing so, the standards become unattainable (for you), then either find hired help (editor, proof-reader, formatter etc) or question whether writing is your bag after all.

Publishing second or even third rate material is going to backfire on the guilty parties one day; that has to happen. Amazon is choked with books and, just like any shop, if it has stock which isn't selling or being returned on a regular basis, what do you think they’ll do about it? Floor space costs money and even virtual floor space isn't free.

Looking at it from my perspective as a publisher in terms of book submissions, I may not understand what you've been writing about nor be able to appreciate the particular genre in the same way as a devotee might, but I can spot spelling and grammar errors and that instantly undermines my faith in the author. I also find it vaguely insulting (just as I did with that job application) because it smacks of "It's good enough for you, mate". Well, it isn't!

Spelling and grammar mistakes are not 'understandable', a 'fact of life' or 'minor details', they say 'I hadn't realized it mattered' which, translated, means "I couldn't be bothered". Be bothered because it does matter!

Clive West (along with his writer wife, Damaris) runs publishing agency, Any Subject Books. He's also author of The Road and the top-selling Hobson's Choice anthology of short stories along with two works of non-fiction. New authors (provided they meet the standards of course!) are always welcome - go to their website or Facebook page for more information.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself--An Excerpt

I've been asked to review a wonderful book called There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It's a collection of short stories written by a New York Times best selling author from Russia. Her work was actually banned in her home country--though none of it is political in nature. Ms. Petrushevskaya captures a small slice of life in what was once the Soviet Union. Her stories are full of humor and a dark grittiness that suck the reader in. I will be reviewing the book next week when it is officially released on Tuesday, Jan. 29. 

In the meantime, the publisher has given me permission to share an excerpt from the book called A Murky Fate and I'm delighted to do so! Enjoy it and be sure to get your own copy of the full book next week!

A Murky Fate

This is what happened. An unmarried woman in her thirties implored her mother to leave their one-room apartment for one night so she could bring home a lover.

This so-called lover bounced between two households, his mother’s and his wife’s, and he had an overripe daughter of fourteen to consider as well. About his work at the laboratory he constantly fretted. He would brag to anyone who listened about the imminent promotion that never materialized. The insatiable appetite he displayed at office parties, where he stuffed himself, was the result of an undiagnosed diabetes that enslaved him to thirst and hunger and lacquered him with pasty skin, thick glasses, and dandruff. A fat, balding man-child of forty-two with a dead-end job and ruined health—this was the treasure our unmarried thirtysomething brought to her apartment for a night of love.

He approached the upcoming tryst matter-of-factly, almost like a business meeting, while she approached it from the black desperation of loneliness. She gave it the appearance of love or at least infatuation: reproaches and tears, pleadings to tell her that he loved her, to which he replied, “Yes, yes, I quite agree.” But despite her illusions she knew there was no romance in how they moved from the office to her apartment, picking up cake and wine at his request; how her hands shook when she was unlocking the door, terrified that her mother might have decided to stay.

The woman put water on for tea, poured wine, and cut cake. Her lover, stuffed with cake, flopped himself across the armchair. He checked the time, then unfastened his watch and placed it on a chair. His underwear was white and clean. He sat down on the edge of the sofa, wiped his feet with his socks, and lay down on the fresh sheets. Afterward they chatted; he asked again what she thought of his chances for a promotion. He got up to leave. At the door, he turned back toward the cake and cut himself another large piece. He asked her to change a three-ruble bill but, receiving no reply, pecked her on the forehead and slammed the door behind him. She didn’t get up. Of course the affair was over for him. He wasn’t coming back—in his childishness he hadn’t understood even that much, skipping off happily, unaware of the catastrophe, taking his three rubles and his overstuffed belly.

The next day she didn’t go to the cafeteria but ate lunch at her desk. She thought about the coming evening, when she’d have to face her mother and resume her old life. Suddenly she blurted out to her officemate: “Well, have you found a man yet?” The woman blushed miserably: “No, not yet.” Her husband had left her, and she’d been living alone with her shame and humiliation, never inviting any of her friends to her empty apartment. “How about you?” she asked. “Yes, I’m seeing someone,” the woman replied. Tears of joy welled up in her eyes.

But she knew she was lost. From now on, she understood, she’d be chained to the pay phone, ringing her beloved at his mother’s, or his wife’s. To them she’d be known as that woman—the last in a series of female voices who had called the same numbers, looking for the same thing. She supposed he must have been loved by many women, all of whom he must have asked about his chances for promotion, then dumped. Her beloved was insensitive and crude—everything was clear in his case. There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, selected and translated by Anna Summers. Copyright © 2013 by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Translation and introduction copyright © 2013 by Anna Summers.

From the publisher:
THERE ONCE LIVED A GIRL... is made up of seventeen fables of marriage, courtship, sex, and love: the office one-night stand that creates a baby; the awkward tryst in a communal apartment; the responsible father chased away from his family by an insane and jealous wife; and the unremarkable and predictable souls who find they have drifted inevitably into union. Romance, violence, infidelity, tenderness—Petrushevskaya has compiled all of those great narrative traditions into an elegant and macabre collection of stories that show just why she is Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

New Life For Old Words by Nerine Dorman

We've had so many great topics at All Things Writing the last few weeks from our guest bloggers! Nerine Dorman's post today is no exception. I found it to be really useful and hope to apply her techniques soon! Welcome Nerine!

At some point, when you’ve been published among the small presses long enough, you’ll get to the stage where the rights of your older works revert to you. By then, they might still be selling a few copies every month, but it’s not really worth your while (as an author) to still give up a percentage of the royalties to the publisher. I mean, come on, we’re talking a paltry few dollars a quarter here, if you so lucky.

I finally reached that point with my two Books of Khepera novels. They’d been available for a long while already, but sales were slow, and the publisher’s main efforts were going toward romance (so the stories really didn’t fit there anymore). I decided to ask for my rights back, the publisher agreed, and both books became unavailable by the end of September 2012.

Luckily for me, I’ve a background in publishing (editing and layout), so while I was perfectly capable of doing the necessary rebooting myself, I elected to outsource some of the work, namely the cover art (by South African illustrator Daniël Hugo) and design and layout by Donnie Light (who has vast experience in indie publishing when it comes to layout and formatting). Which left editing and project management to me.

The first thing I did was run a line edit on the first edition of book one, Khepera Rising. While I wouldn’t engage in any developmental edits, I did feel that I needed to tighten some of the grammar. Consider it a little pruning, if you will. Some advice, before you send your final text file to your layout artist, *do* print out the entire document yourself and read it through with a red pen in hand. You’d be surprised what sorts of gremlins jump out at you.

Once I’d signed off on the illustration, for which I wish to hugglez Daniël, because I think he’s also totally on my wave length, I handed the corrected text file and artwork through to Donnie, who then did the necessary with the layout and cover treatment. I’ve worked with Donnie before (he did the layout work on one of my other novels, Inkarna). Once again, I had to check proofs so that no unforeseen gremlins crept in.

I decided to go with Smashwords for my ebook offering, mainly because they offer a variety of ebook formats, and also distribute via vendors such as Kobo, Diesel and Sony, to name a few, yet readers can also purchase and download directly from Smashwords in a variety of formats, including .mobi, .epub and .pdf. At this point I’m still of two minds as to whether I’ll set up a separate deal with Amazon for my ebook, because I’m also a firm believer in keeping things simple, and I’ve heard plenty of horror stories that I’d like to keep contact minimal. As for print, I took the CreateSpace route which, thanks to Donnie, was reasonably painless. Yes, yes, I know it’s part of Amazon, but as I said, I prefer keeping my association to an absolute minimum.

Will I self-publish subsequent works? Oh yes. Definitely. I like the idea of maintaining control over my backlist. As you can see, there’s quite a lot of behind-the-scenes effort that goes into setting files up. While it’s perfectly possible for me to have handled everything, I’ve also got a day job to contend with, so for ease of mind I was overjoyed that I could work with professionals. The couple of hundred dollars I spent was well worth it to get a product that’s eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing, and is something I’m proud of having my name on.

As for Khepera Rising, I thought it best to share what some of my readers have had to say about the story:

“This isn’t a Hollywood story where wizards duel on highways by flinging fireballs and invoking ghosts. The magic is more subtle, and that makes it easier to imagine that the story is taking place in your own backyard.” – Zane Marc Gentis, The Chemical Dream blog

“This is not my usual genre, urban fantasy/horror, but I was caught up in this gritty, brutal, graphic story from the very beginning pages. Strong, evocative writing. Compelling, dark tale. Highly recommended if you're into the dark side.” – Patricia Burroughs, Goodreads

“First novel? Come off it, Dorman is no apprentice. She’s pulled something out of the hat with this one, but then she’s a practicing magician and no, it’s not a white bunny she’s holding in her hand. Then again, if being scared wasn’t irresistible, you wouldn’t be reaching out to take it.” – Greg Hamerton, author

Curious? The first 30% is available as a free download off Smashwords: or you can lay your grubby mitts on the dead tree version here:

You’re welcome to stalk me on Twitter @nerinedorman or swing past my Amazon Author Page and see whether anything catches your fancy

I’m always happy to answer questions with regard to editing, so feel free to mail me at From time to time I do take on clients, and offer assessments, developmental editing, content editing and proofing for assorted genre fiction.

Check out Donnie Light here: and Daniël Hugo here:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Intentionally Misconstrued: The Art of Argument

Writing is tough. If nothing else, there’s the will that makes you keep doing it amid constant rejections from the literary industry and the occasionally bad review from a less than adoring fan. Books are bad enough, getting 100,000 or more words all perfect and making sense. Novels are even harder since the writer has to basically make everything up.  You have to literally be each person in the story with their different personalities, desires, and motivations.

A common mistake of new writers is creating characters that all sound the same. Each of them acts and thinks exactly like the writer. And why not? That’s the only person the writer can really say he understands. It takes a lot of practice, skill, and awareness to create individual characters with depth and it doesn’t happen by accident. But even when your characters begin to stand on their own two feet, you can find the interaction between characters coming across as flat. This is especially true when you are writing arguments.

Arguments are especially tricky. Above all, arguments must have a point. Then they can’t be too long. But they can’t be too short either. There has to be something to get the argument going. And then it should escalate as the characters become emotionally invested. At some point, depending on the needs of the story, the emotions and the disconnect should become so great that some kind of crisis develops. Perhaps a fist fight ensues. Or maybe one character walks out on the other, vowing never to speak again. People say things in arguments that they can’t take back. Things that can carry throughout the rest of the story. Good fodder for the emotional havoc you aim to visit upon your characters (and indirectly, upon your readers.)

Regardless of the reason you need an argument, and there are many, it is supremely important that it begin convincingly. Many is the argument I’ve read that just didn’t do it for me. I see this in screenplays all the time and it comes across as terribly forced.  Suddenly characters are at one another’s throats and you’re thinking, “What? That didn’t make any sense.” The argument isn’t convincing and whatever emotional stake it was to provide, is lost.

The reason this happens so often is because arguments are usually started by an irrational response. The problem is, it is hard to think irrationally when you are writing. Writing is highly linear based on cause and effect. But in the case of irrationality, the effect doesn’t relate to the cause in a typical sense. There is a relationship, but it is different than we would normally expect. Such an irrational and yet related response can be very tough to write. Fortunately, there is a very handy trick for getting that relationship just right; related, but in a way that you can use to start that argument off just right.

Our nation is deeply divided at the moment. As deeply divided as I’ve ever seen it. The recent presidential election rubbed salt into already festering wounds. Just as the dust was beginning to settle, an insane man went on a shooting spree in a elementary school kicking off yet another gun debate. Looking at the way people are responding to these incidents is highly illustrative in learning how to write the initiation of an argument. You just do what people do every time they discuss politics.

Let me give you an example. Barack Obama says that we need to get guns under control. Someone who opposes him interprets this statement as being aimed at turning all Americans into slaves. On the flip side, someone declares that abortion should be illegal. Someone from the pro-Choice side interprets this statement as meaning that women should not have control over their bodies. Both cases can, and do, start whopper arguments. But what really happened?

While he may disagree with the President, does the pro-gun advocate really think that Barack Obama wants to turn everyone into slaves? Does the pro-Choice advocate really think their foe wants to take away all of a woman’s rights to her own body? Or, in both cases, are the statements intentionally and willfully misconstrued? Think about your own response to these statements. How did they make you feel? How did you want to respond? We do this all the time in our daily life, and you should do it all the time as a writer.

Next time you need to estrange two characters with an argument, look closely at what kinds of ‘people’ they are. How can one of them intentionally misconstrue the statement of another?  Consider what they are passionate about and you will very quickly find them in conflict over something. Use that, just as our political leaders do, to have one character intentionally misconstrue a statement and drive a wedge between the two characters. Not only is this one of the most powerful ways to start an argument in fiction, it is also one of the biggest problems in our nation today. So, I will leave you with a question: Where do we tend to see this more than anywhere else?


Until next time,
John C. Brewer

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stilted, stunted or stupid?

I don't know about you but one of the principal reasons why I give up on a book or a film (for that matter) is when the dialogue lets the story down in a big way. You know the sort of thing I mean:

"Honey, I'm sorry about all those other women"

"You promise there won't be any more?"

"I swear it"

"OK then"

I can't believe my wife responding like that. I’m not entirely sure the exact words she’d use but I think they might be a little more, how can I put it, pointed. I’m not just getting at writers of the good old bodice-ripper romances, either. Action books frequently fail to come up to the mark, too.

For example:

"I know this sounds crazy but we've got to carry out this really dangerous mission if we're to save everyone"

"But we could all get killed in the process. Have you thought about that?"

"I know but we've no choice. I need your expertise if we’re to pull it off"

"I'm in then"

Would you risk life and limb so readily? If so, remind me not to ask you to pack my parachute should we ever go sky-diving together. I think I’d let you go first, if you don’t mind.

Every genre has its equivalent - I've just picked on two popular ones. The thing is that, in my experience as a publisher, many authors get so caught up in the plot that they forget about the dialogue's role in the story. It strikes me a large proportion of writers perceive the interchanges between characters as either a silly device for introducing new people "You've met my cousin Jim, haven't you?" or for far too conveniently 'discovering' the ‘deus ex machina’ solution to the climatic dilemma "Hey! I've just remembered I've got another ..." in the 'Here comes the cavalry!" style.

Dialogue should not be used in this way. It's there to make sense of situations, to give depth and color to your characters and to transform an extended essay into a work of literature. It's quite probably the hardest part of a book to write because of the perpetual battle between being too verbose and being too terse. Since dialogue is often highly challenging to get right, most authors will err on the terse side. As a result, the output frequently comes into my 'stilted, stunted or stupid' category.

It's actually quite easy to avoid and I'll show you how I do it.

When I write a story, my principal concern is getting the plot sorted out. I need to know that I can get from beginning to end without leaving holes or stretching probability to breaking point. Once I've done that, I then break the story down into a series of scenes - just like a film or play would have. In each scene, I consider a number of factors such as:
  • Who's going to be present
  • What the opening situation stands at (who knows what, what agenda each character has etc
  • What I want to achieve (an action or exchange of information etc)
  • The nature of the characters present
  • The genre and tone of my book (how much humor I use, how menacing I want it to be etc)
  • Whether the characters speak in a dialect or with a pronounced accent which I wish to replicate
Once I’ve decided all this, the conversation starts to unravel in my head and I just type it up, edit it, and add in some emphatic punctuation (if appropriate) and a bit of text (having pure dialogue is extremely wearing).

To help you achieve the same goal, I’d like you to follow a small piece of advice. When you’re writing up the dialogue, instead of concentrating solely on the end goal and getting there as quickly as possible, imagine you’re standing in the shoes of each of your characters in turn. What's their take on this?

Bear in mind that real people (for the most part) don't:
  • Stick to the point
  • Treat conversations like business meetings
  • Just accept whatever you tell them
  • Tell you what they're thinking
They do:
  • 'Um' and 'ah' a lot
  • Crack jokes, relate anecdotes, 'behave unprofessionally'
  • Possess a history
  • Have their own agendas
Try to hear the scene in your own head or, better still, grab a few passing friends to play out the parts. Does the scene sound realistic?

Speech like "Flash! I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth" may have worked a dream in Flash Gordon (the line’s a true classic and deserves to be preserved for posterity) but, unless you're writing in that genre, it’s best avoided.

Clive West has written 4 books of his own and also runs a publishing company with his wife, a fellow author. He's an ardent believer in the combined power of plot and dialogue and you can find plenty of examples in his full-length novel, The Road. For more information about Clive, his books and his publishing business, visit his company's website or Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Characterization of Diversity

Today on All Things Writing we welcome an amazing guest blogger: Carolyn Evans-Dean. I absolutely love this piece she's written for us and hope she'll be our guest again!--Mary Ann

As a child of the 1970’s, I grew up in a world where minority characters were based upon widely held biases about culture. That decade ushered in a host of award-winning media firsts, which included the creation of more culturally diverse characters on television and cinema. Shows like What’s Happening, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Different Strokes and Chico & the Man are a few that featured minorities in leading roles. Unfortunately, all of the aforementioned programs were sitcoms and serious depictions of minorities were few and far between. While the appearance of minority actors on the tube was considered to be a step in the right direction by some, others were enraged by the stereotypes that were perpetuated.

For Asian-American women, the roles were limited to bland, servant-type characters that lacked depth. The men were relegated to delivering Chinese food. While the actor might really be Japanese, there was no attempt at cultural accuracy. Unfortunately, Hollywood believed that Asians were interchangeable.

Native Americans were portrayed as heathens and the cast of most western films featured bronzed Caucasians wearing mismatched tribal accoutrements to depict the indigenous people that stood between real Americans and their manifest destiny. Once again, Hollywood demonstrated that it held no regard for authentic minority characters.

As a result, very few television programs were deemed to be acceptable for viewing in my childhood home. I was an avid reader, instead. In literature, the offerings were equally abysmal and it was difficult for my parents to find books that depicted even a single African-American character. When they did find one, the character was either offensive or more of a shadow of a person. It was particularly important to them to provide positive role models that looked like us, as we were the only African-American family for miles.

Given the media portrayals, it is no wonder that many minorities took umbrage with the images on the screen and felt alienated by the industry. The American Dream was revealed each night during primetime, but it didn’t include people that were outside of the Anglo ideal.

With few exceptions, the literary world wasn’t much different. In the late 1980’s, I recall entering a drugstore to pick up a few things. Next to the usual Harlequin-type books, I spotted a new series. It was clad in earth tones and the intertwined black couple on the cover compelled me to make the purchase. I’d never seen an African American romance novel before and was quite eager to crack it open. Serious disappointment set in when I realized that beyond the racy cover, the characters were culturally bankrupt. There was nothing that identified them as having had any sort of black experience. It was essentially a one dimensional blackwashing of a book without any real thought to developing characters that were plausible.

As writers, we need to be culturally aware of the characters that we create. If we opt to create a character of color for no other reason than to lend the appearance of diversity, it isn’t much better than making a conscious decision to exclude one.

So…how do we decide when to include a minority character and more importantly, how do we craft the character in a manner that is realistic? The answer is simple: Write about things that are within your sphere of personal knowledge.

Take the time to learn about the culture of the characters that you wish to create. There is accurate information to be found on the internet, on cable channels or in books. Of course, my favorite method of learning about culture is to dive in! Many communities offer cultural and religious festivals which can be great places to become immersed in the music, food and history of the various groups of people that comprise the melting pot of America. Once you’ve stepped outside the confines of your usual places and spaces, your writing is enriched.

Diversity can bring something special to a story. It can provide a perspective that is unique to a group of people with a shared set of experiences. For the reader that is outside of that experience, it is a window into something that they’ve never been privy to before.

Harper Lee was exceptional at creating characters. In To Kill A Mockingbird, she effectively captured the mood of the American South in the 1930’s. Jem, Scout and Atticus are cozy characters to slip into and their speech patterns and dialogue are authentic, rather than stilted. African American characters are portrayed with depth and infinite understanding of the Jim Crow era. The secret to her success was that the characters were familiar to her. Ms. Lee grew up in a rural town setting and patterned the characters after people that she knew intimately. They weren’t created out of thin air or based upon assumptions.

Does this mean that writers should yammer incessantly about a character’s ethnicity to ensure that the reader doesn’t forget? Absolutely not! Instead, allow the story to reveal itself.

-Select a setting that is appropriate for the story.

-Grant the character time to reflect on past experiences through a comparison to the present situation.

-Include a few foreign words into the dialogue with a translation, where appropriate.

-Minimize the use of slang, unless you are confident that it is being used in context and can be conveyed in a manner that isn’t disruptive or offensive to the reader.

- Connect a story to culture through the use of appropriate clothing, poetry, music, dance, history, scent and food references.

-Use psychology. Allow your character to be injured or scarred by their past experiences.

-Allow your character to laugh at his or her culture. We all laugh at ourselves from time to time.

-Consider addressing widely held biases about the culture. The origin of a stereotype can be interesting to explore and a writer is in the unique position of educating a captive audience.

-Accept that your characterization will not be acceptable to all members of the minority group that your character identifies with. Every human on the planet has a unique set of experiences and unless your character was raised in an urban/rural/wealthy/poor/functional/dysfunctional/single parent/dual parent household, you will be unable to please them all!

If you develop the personality before you attempt to write, you will find that a well-rounded character emerges.  A character with a “walk-on” role in your book should have a backstory, even if you opt to never write it. Keeping the backstory in mind will assist you in creating well-rounded characters, not caricatures. You might even find that you enjoy your peripheral characters enough to devote a novel to expound on their story at a later date.

When it all comes together, you will be able to effectively nurture a well-developed cast that will keep your readers engaged and clamoring for more.

Carolyn Evans-Dean is a freelance agricultural writer and women’s contemporary novelist from Central New York. She enjoys channeling the voices in her head to bring a unique and diverse cast of characters to her readers. She is currently working feverishly to finish the third installment of the light apocalyptic series, Bystander: A Tale of the End of the World as SHE Knew It! Click the link below to sneak a peek at Bystander on

You can connect with Carolyn online through the following social media venues where she enthusiastically engages in conversations about agriculture, cooking from scratch, self-sufficiency and common sense emergency preparedness:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Road by Clive West--a review

I often worry about reviewing the work of colleagues and friends. After all, reviews can be a tricky business, and while I want to be honest, I hate the thought of hurting a friend's feelings.  When my fellow blogger at All Things Writing, Clive West, asked me if I'd be interested in reading and reviewing his book, The Road, I said yes with some trepidation. 

Luckily, my worries were over nothing! The Road turned out to be a fantastic read.


Here is the author's Amazon blurb:

Every crime has its victim.

The Giddings family - enjoying their rural idyll until events start to spiral out of their control turning paradise into hell.

Henry - trapped in a loveless marriage who sees a chance to climb on board the gravy train for a one-way ticket out of misery but doesn't want to know about the consequences of his actions.

Sandra - frustrated by a system where the rich get richer and the poor pay to get a ringside seat.

John - a shrewd developer who knows all the tricks and is the guy flicking the switch when the smelly stuff hits the fan.

The parasites and hangers on, too numerous to mention, who abuse their positions of trust to feather their own nests but who are outraged when those lower down the pecking order try to do the same.


The Road is one of those books that sucks you in from the very beginning. We know from the get go that a suicide has occurred, but are unsure who the unnamed victim is. As the story unfolded, I kept coming back to those first few pages and trying to guess which of the characters it was. To be honest, this book kept me guessing about that until close to the end.

I think that's the charm of The Road. It's a highly detailed, character driven tale where you can't help but get emotionally involved in the character's lives. I felt a little like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, always peeking in at the raw events that occurred. Mr. West definitely knows how to create characters that are strong and evoke feelings from the readers. I liked the character of Henry a great deal, even when I knew he was stooping to a low level with his development deal. His frustration with his wife and the disinterest of his kids was well written and pulls the reader right into his life. His wife, Margaret (Maggie), is a piece of work. She nags, complains, and feels that nothing is ever good enough.

I felt a little sorry for Sandra. It was obvious to me that her boyfriend, Angelo, was never going to be who she wanted him to be. I've met lots of girls like her who are blinded by love and don't really see the truth.  

And then there's John. Talk about smarmy. Underhanded, seedy, and definitely someone who knows how to work the system, John is that guy we've all met who seems to be just a little better off, just a little better dressed than everyone else. We know that he's gotten all his success by playing the odds and not caring who he steps on as he climbs the career ladder.

When these characters come together, they create a stirring story about corruption and greed.

If you've followed my past reviews, you know that I can't ever write a review without being a least a little critical. My only negative comment about The Road would be that at times I felt there was too much backstory which slowed the action down. However, it wasn't enough to stop me from reading the book!

Bravo, Clive, on an excellent tale!

Clive's Amazon link for The Road is below. Be sure to check back and read more of his musings and thoughts on writing every Thursday here at All Things Writing.




Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: Halfskin by Tony Bertauski

I'm not a big fan of New Year's resolutions. I figure, if you're going to do something meaningful you may as well start doing it immediately, why wait until the Earth get's back into the position against the background stars that we humans have defined as January 1? So in reality, this has nothing to do with waiting until January 1st and everything to do with the fact that I am incorporating this into my platform  right now because I thought of it right now.

As a writer, I've always thought I should probably read more. But I don't really think you can improve your writing by reading. The only way you can improve your writing is by, well, writing. But reading is good for keeping your finger on the pulse of what is out there. It is also good for exposing yourself to new styles and ideas to keep you from getting into a rut. Also, when you can find a good book and have a little time, it is a lot of fun.

Quite honestly, however, I've been having a lot of trouble finding books I really like. The current offerings from the major publishers just haven't been scratching my itch. Lately I've found some nice lists on Goodreads, specifically in the Authors Requesting Reviews section, that seem more like what I like to read, and not surprisingly, to write. So it makes sense that my New Year's resolution is not only to read more, but to review as well. I hope my readers will help keep me honest. I'm not going to promise to review a book weekly, but certainly once or twice a month isn't too much, and will still leave me enough time to write. Too many people are asking about the sequel to Multiplayer that I've been working on. As to the kind of novels I'm going to review, I have no interest in reviewing novels published by the major publishers. They are all virtually identical and have already been reviewed ad nauseam by employees of the publisher. I am much more interested in the creative and thought provoking work being published directly by authors and by micro presses. That is where today's literary action is! So check out my reviews and pick up some of these great books. You won't be disappointed!


Halfskin by Tony Bertauski
Publisher: Tony Bertauski, 2012

Plot: 5
Characters: 5
Setting: 4
Execution: 3
Cover: 3

Halfskin by Tony Bertauski is a story set in a near future. Most of the setting is familiar except nanotechnology, in the form of biomites, is being used to enhance, heal, and perfect the human body. However, harkening to the well known “grey goo scenario,” there are those who fear that these biomites will ultimately bring out the extinction of mankind. As a result, laws have been put in place to limit the percentage of biomites that make up a person. When your percentage gets too high your biomites are shut down, usually killing the host. This technology is handled quite well by the author, though at times he almost writes himself into a corner, creating a few scenes that feel stretched.

One of the characters has an unusually high percentage of biomites for their age due to a car wreck as a child. As a result, this character approaches the critical percentage much sooner than is typical, forcing the government into action. A sibling rushes to his rescue and they are off on a thrilling chase, staying one step ahead of the heartless federal agent pursuing them.

I enjoyed Halfskin and at no point did I find the reading unpleasant. Anyone who likes near future science fiction will probably enjoy this story. There were echoes of Michael Crichton’s Prey as well as a bit of Logan’s Run throughout; though at no point did the plot seem derivative. I was not always happy with the author’s description of the setting and it left me confused occasionally, and I did find a few of the thematic devices a tad cliché. On the other hand, the characters were well developed and created a strong emotional attachment. Readers who like nice pretty bows on their stories may find the ending a bit unsatisfying, but I’m not one of those and felt that it was handled well.

Overall, a well-told, compelling story that I would recommend to those interested in this kind of work, though there is not a lot of overlap with other genres. For additional information on my rating system, please visit my review page at .

Until next time,
John C. Brewer

Thursday, January 10, 2013

DIY Autobiographies

It’s said that everyone has at least one book in them, and naturally many of these books would turn out to be autobiographies. Having read a whole host in my time, I would hazard this contribution to the best way of going about writing them.

The majority of autobiographies that I’ve read and really enjoyed have to be the ones which have given me a frisson of surprise somewhere along the line. All of us believe our lives would make interesting reading. It’s the selective process which we apply that is going to make the difference between a book that we pick up and read to the end, and a book we abandon after the first half chapter because it is boring.

We all share a common start. We are born. For the most part, the very beginning is usually pretty dull but as one engages with the world, things start to happen.

If you are going to write about a slice of your life, however big or small the slice, it has to keep people wanting to turn the pages. Seek out the parts of your life that you feel would be of interest to others.

There is nothing exciting about catching the 7.45 to work every morning and catching the 5.45 to return home in the evening. It is the one day that the 7.45 is late and something unforeseen happens that the interest begins. So the ability to convey various pieces of information that have a twist, or a difference, seems to be the key factor.

Any way that you can introduce an element of humour will also help. The ability to send yourself up, and find as much comedy in the anecdotes as you can, tells the reader something about who you are and what your personal perception on life is, which could create an affinity between you and the reader.

A classic example is someone like Maureen Lipman, who is able to take the most mundane happenings and turn them into a series of hilarious stories.

Autobiographies, like fiction, must have a beginning, a middle and an end. If you are going to attempt your own autobiography, it makes most sense to try and choose the most diverse period of your life. This will provide variety and help to engage the reader.

As a final suggestion, it is best to read as many autobiographies as you can, to see how each author handles their childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, and how they convey their own emotional take on the world. Write truthfully and from the heart. If it hurts, don't be afraid to say it hurts; if you make a serious error of judgement, say so and learn from it. As Shakespeare once wrote: "To thine own self be true".

Jennie Phillips writes for Any Subject Books. After many years of associating with the famous entertainment world friends of her actor husband, Conrad, the pair buy a small farm in South West Scotland. Skeoch - Our New Life On A Scottish Hill Farm tells the story of their numerous trials and tribulations.

An actor and his wife are an unlikely pair to combat the rigours of farming in South West Scotland, but with very little relevant knowledge let alone experience, Conrad and Jennie buy Skeoch Farm and set about making it viable. They are visited by hardship and tragedy, but also by beauty and contentment. This is a lifestyle more to be admired than envied, perhaps, but we can certainly share in the roller-coaster existence which is so vividly described.