Saturday, August 27, 2016

You Can Be a Pantser And Still Know What's Going To Happen In Your Story

taxi, cars, people, backpack, hoodie, jacket, jeans, pants, street, road, city, night, evening, lamp posts, light, urban, drivingIf there had been room, the title of this post would actually have ended with...And You Can Be a Plotter And Still Be Surprised By Your Characters. But that's a bit, I don't know, unwieldy for a title. At any rate, both of those things are absolutely true.

I should stop here and explain for anyone new to writer blogs that a plotter is a person who plans out the whole plot of a story or book beforehand and writes according to the plan. The term pantser comes from the phrase flying by the seat of one's pants, or working by feel and instinct rather than a set plan. In travel, I'm a firm plotter. In writing, however, I'm a dedicated pantser.

Because of my proclivities, I can speak to the pantser end of the equation from more experience than the plotter side, but I have written shorter works in which I knew beforehand every scene that was going to take place and basically knew how they were going to work out. For instance, in "The Legend of the Tatted Battler" I had it completely plotted. I knew every single scene from beginning to end. To be fair, I did dream the whole story, but the one I wrote down was a lot more fleshed out than the one I dreamed. And I started the story knowing every character and every scene. Yet there were times when a character said something that popped up so spontaneously that I was learning it as I typed it. It's moments like that, which make writing a blast. By the way, you can read that story on my website by clicking here and going to "Other Writings."

On the other hand, I'm a firm pantser when it comes to my novels. Each scene I write leads me to the next scene. And when how I write a scene changes, it changes where the next scene will go. For instance, in my work-in-progress, I'm in the midst of writing about the heroine's first day of school. First thing in the morning, the teacher calls a young lady to the front of the class to be that day's leader for the Pledge of Allegiance. I had first envisioned this girl as EJ's nemesis, so to speak, and I was going to make her the class beauty. Kind of a Mean Girl. But suddenly she took over and morphed into an ugly duckling who was nonetheless completely comfortable in her skin. And instead of being the leader of the taunts on the playground, she was suddenly EJ's protector. And suddenly, EJ had a lifelong friend.

map, magnifying glass, directions, navigation, globe, travel, trip, vacation
All that being said, I still know exactly where my story is going to go. Do I know the specifics of every stop between Point A, the beginning of the story, and Point B, the end of the story? Absolutely not. But I darn well know where Point B is. I can tell you exactly what kind of person EJ is at the end of the story and how she became that person. So when I write a scene, I let it go where it wants, but if, in the process I realize that it's taking me in a direction I don't want, I have to stop and evaluate whether this detour is worth it and how I might make it back onto the track if I choose to keep going.

You may be thinking that this isn't a very efficient way to write. That it would be simpler to storyboard the whole thing and know how every single scene will go. That would, I admit, save a lot of time. In fact, it would save all the time because I would just not waste any time writing at all if that were how I had to do it. Part of the joy of writing is the sloppiness of it. The inefficiency of it. The wow-I-didn't-mean-for-that-to-happen-but-it's-amazing of it. In fact, it's most of the joy of it. It's way more joy than editing, I can tell you. Admittedly, it does lead to more editing than a plotter style would because allowing for spontaneous movement from scene to scene lends itself to plot holes, which means I can't skimp on the second draft. Or the third. Or even the fourth. I was still patching holes on the fourth revision of my last Shalan book. In fact, the chapter in which they visit Tony Bezaleel in prison was a really late addition, but one which brings a stronger resolution to the end of the story, in my humble opinion.

Every writer falls somewhere on this scale. Some are positively scientific and workman-like, doing all the heavy lifting in the outline phase, with the actual writing just a matter of putting meat on the bones that have already been assembled. Others, like me, are more free-form. I kind of think of it like being an archeologist. I muck around until I find something and then I dig it up and examine it. It's a dirty job, but it sure is fun when you find something neat.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

RRBC Back-To-School Book and Blog Party!

Welcome to my stop on the RRBC Back-to-School Book and Blog Party on My Train of Thought in Parkersburg, West Virginia!

Here's what I'm giving away today to one person who leaves me a comment:

  • A complete signed set of my four Shalan Adventures, including Harsh Prey, Kisses and Lies, In the Shadow, and Dawn of Grace!

Hi! My name is Joe Stephens, and I'm the author of the Shalan Adventures, starring the dynamic pair of detectives, Harry and Dee Shalan, who are not only an amazing  couple of detectives but also an amazing couple. They are crazy about each other, even when life just doesn't seem to want them to be happy. So if you enjoy your detective thrillers with a solid dose of romance, then the Shalan Adventures are for you! Here's a little more about each book: 

Harsh Prey

Harry Shalan, a quick-witted if somewhat distractible private eye, makes the wrong mobster mad, putting his wife Deanna in the hands of kidnappers. Harry strikes a bargain and secures her release; however when she is finally back in Harry’s arms, Dee insists that she will no longer play the doting wife cheering him on the sidelines—he now has a partner.

HARSH PREY is a detective novel, but one that brings a different sensibility to the genre. Inspired by such great characters as Philip Marlowe, Spenser, and Sam Spade, Harry and Dee Shalan are, for lack of an existing term, soft-boiled detectives. Filled with humorous dialogue, unusual characters, and Harry’s deep, sometimes comically twisted observations, it explores the saving nature of love and the darkness that can come about when that love turns into obsession.

Kisses and Lies

In the second Shalan adventure, Harry and Dee are trying to come to the aid of a young woman named ALYSSA HILLMAN, who may or may not have just killed her abusive husband in self-defense. The problem is that no one can find the body. 

It quickly becomes apparent that Alyssa's husband, WILLY HILLMAN, is alive and leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake as he spirals out of control. 

Will Dee and Harry catch up to the psychopathic murderer before he kills again?


In The Shadow: A Shalan Adventure (The Shalan Adventures Book 3) by [Stephens, Joe]
Local high school student Jenn Bezaleel is missing and the police are at a loss. It’s like she vanished without a trace and no one knows anything. So they call in Harry Shalan, who, at the urging of his extremely pregnant wife, Dee, takes the case.
But when Harry starts looking into Jenn’s disappearance, he uncovers some dark family secrets, leading him to conclude that, assuming he can find her, the last place this girl needs to be is back with her mother and stepfather. 

Just as Harry begins to make progress on the case, however, tragedy strikes that threatens to tear Harry and Dee apart forever. Will they find Jenn Bezaleel? If so, where will she go? Can Harry and Dee survive their heartbreaking loss? The answers are…
In The Shadow.


Dawn of Grace: A Shalan Adventure (The Shalan Adventures Book 4) by [Stephens, Joe]
Why is private eye Harry Shalan standing on the Fifth Street Bridge contemplating how much he would mind if he fell in the river and didn't come back up? You see, Harry lives by a strict code of honor and is struggling not to hate himself because he broke his code--badly. He lost control and brutally attacked his foster daughter Jenn's biological father, Antonio Bezaleel. Bezaleel is more monster than human and everyone agrees that he deserves a punishment much worse than the one Harry dealt out to him. Nonetheless, Harry's act has sent him into a spiral of despair that has cut him off from the very people he needs the most. His wife and detective partner Dee, his foster daughter Jenn, and his best friend Otis are fighting to bring their hero back from the brink.

In the midst of this dark episode, Harry and Dee answer a cry for help from an old friend who is accused of savagely murdering and mutilating her ex-husband. She swears that she didn't kill him, but things don't look good. She was, after all, found by the police kneeling over the man covered in his blood and gripping the knife that had been used to kill and dismember him. 

Their investigation brings them in contact with a precocious six-year-old who swears the murder was committed by a ninja, and he just may be the key to the case. They also encounter an old classmate of Harry's who is a little more appreciative of Dee's anatomy than anyone's comfortable with, a guy who likes to snort coke and cut women's hair, and even a hooker with a heart of gold. They also meet a quiet young woman named Anita Rathbone who seems quite sweet on Otis, a man married to his job since the only woman he's ever wanted is married to his best friend. Does Otis finally find a woman to love? Does Harry learn to forgive himself and accept the forgiveness of those who care for him? Do the Shalans solve the crime and save their friend from a life behind bars? The answers are revealed in

Sound interesting? Just go here to find out how to read previews of each and to buy them in paperback or for Kindle! Or you can also visit my website!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Excerpt From My Work-In-Progress

I thought it might be fun for you to get an early glimpse at my work-in-progress. It's about a young woman named EJ. I don't want to reveal too much about the plot, but I can tell you the book starts in the middle with our heroine as a teenager, goes back to the beginning, when EJ is just 5 years old and living on a shoestring with her loving single mother Charlene,  and works its way to and past the starting point, ending with EJ as an woman.

This scene is the very opening of the book. EJ is preparing to go to a funeral:

woman, girl, lady, people, side, view, profile, silhouette, shadow, nature, tree, leaves, still, bokehShe stood in front of her dresser, staring into the top drawer. She had looked in all the others and her black tights were just nowhere to be found. She started to yell for Mama, like she’d done she didn’t know how many times in the past two weeks. At least this time she stopped herself. And at least this time she didn’t cry. She wondered if she had any tears left in her.
It was almost time to leave for the service, so she was about to give up and just go barelegged. Her dress was almost long enough to cover her legs anyway. But something prompted her to look one last time through the dresser. There they were, right on top of the jumbled mess of socks and hosiery in the second-to-bottom drawer.
She looked up toward the ceiling, surprising herself by laughing. “You’d have made fun of me for that one.”
No one replied because she was alone. It occurred to her for the first time, really, that she truly was alone. There were neighbors they’d known since she could remember. And the customers at The Hive. But with Mama gone—she still hadn’t been able to bring herself to use the D word—she was now completely without family. At least family close enough to mean anything. The bitter anger and self-loathing was slowly being replaced by a dull hollow ache deep inside. Where my soul used to be, she thought.
cemetery, graves, tombstones, death, black and whiteShe slid into her tights, put on her black ballet flats—they were kind of tight and didn’t really look good with the dress, but they were the last pair of shoes Mama had ever bought her—got up, straightened herself in the mirror, and started to go. But something made her look again. Her eyes. She had Mama’s eyes. Everyone had told her that, but she’d seen it. Until just that moment. It was like Mama was staring at her through those eyes. Before she lost it, she hurried out of her room and down the steps to the living room, where Aunt Bill, her ride to the funeral, was waiting.

As time goes on, I'll share other scenes from time to time. I'll also be discussing the experience of telling EJ's story. It's relatively early on in the process, but I'm really starting to like this smart, plucky young woman. I'm also finding it fascinating to depart, albeit temporarily from my normal voice, that of my alter ego, Harry Shalan, and genre. This book does have some elements of mystery, but it's by no means a detective story. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

If It's Important To You, You'll Find Time For It

One of the questions I get asked a lot is how I find time to write books with my schedule, especially during the school year. Sometimes I wonder that myself. I teach Advanced Placement English, a class that is time intensive, for the teacher and students. There is a lot of reading and often more writing for the students in that one school year than they've done in their entire career up to that point, which means that I have a lot of reading too. I will often come home from work to an inbox filled with emails from my kids seeking portfolio approval. Many nights, I'll read several dozen papers. And that's on top of lesson preparation for the following day. And often on top of other school activities (I do my best to get to at least one or two of each of my students' activities throughout the year) or non-church activities (I'm help lead a small group at my church and I'm also starting a writers circle at my local library. I also write for an online magazine called ClutchMOV and spend time every day maintaining my online author presence.).

And yet I have time to write books. How? I have the same amount of time each day as everyone else. It's as simple as this: it's important to me, so I find time to do it. Here are some ways I do that.

East, The Sun, Sunrise, Landscape, In The Morning1. I get up early. On days that I have school, I'm up by 5:30am, which gives me a couple hours to, among other things, write. Knowing myself as I do, the morning is my most creative time anyway. The vast majority of every book I've written so far has been between 5:30am and 2pm. After that, my brain just doesn't work that way. I'm good for other stuff, but not writing.

2. I protect my Saturday mornings as much as I possibly can. It's not possible all the time, but Saturdays are when I get the greatest chunk of my writing done. I even go so far as to put it on my calendar so that when someone asks if I can do something, I can honestly tell them I'm booked.

Superbike, Motorsport, Fast, Speed, Red, Track, Race3. I realized I don't have to write 5000 words at a time. There are many days that I only get a few hundred words written because I only have a half-hour to work. Sometimes that has to be okay.

4. I've made a project of getting faster. When I first started writing books, I spent a lot of time staring at the screen trying to come up with the exact right word or phrase. But I've been quite intentional about forcing myself to push on, writing at as quick a pace as I can, worrying about perfection in a later draft. But if I don't get that first draft down on the page, the second and third and fourth drafts will never come. As a result, if I can string together three or four hours on a Saturday morning, I can get several thousand words written. And if I write 5000 words a week, I can get a 75,000 word rough draft completed in about 20 weeks.

Jail, Prison, Police, Crime, Law, Arrest, Criminal5. I don't feel guilty. This doesn't sound like a tip for getting work done, but it really is. Feeling guilty when I didn't write for a few days or even a week led me to feel hopeless, which caused me to write even less. But when I learned to let go of that guilt, it freed me to pick up where I left off without any baggage, even if it's been 8 or ten days since I did anything on my current work-in-progress. The reality is that there are times when I really do just want to take some time off and have fun. And that's okay. And there are other times when other writing projects or school work just have to take priority because they're time sensitive. And that's okay too.

So there you go. I hope you find these tips useful, whether you are trying to write a novel or learn to play the tin whistle (something else I've started doing), or whatever it is that you say you want to do but never seem to find the time. If it's really important, you'll find the time to do it.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

How to Improve Your Writing

Running, Runner, Long Distance, Fitness, FemaleI enjoy walking for exercise. I have a balky knee, which keeps me from doing what I really love, running, but I continue to putter along in a less impactful way. Before my knee went bad on me, though, I ran pretty seriously. Slowly, but seriously. I ran in half marathons. And one of the things I learned in my quest to become better at running is that you don't always have to run long distances to improve. When I was training, in fact, I would only run long one day a week, with shorter, specific types of runs other days, rest on others, and cross-training on still others. Cross-training is doing other kinds of exercise that improve you in your chosen sport. There are specific exercises you can do to make your body more ready to run long distances.

The same is true for writing. If you're a novelist, like I am, in order to get better at that, the primary thing you should probably do, and I know this isn't exactly groundbreaking news, is write novels. But it's by no means the only thing you have to do. In fact, I would argue it's not the only thing you should do. Just like distance runners do specific kinds of runs and specific kinds of cross-training on days they aren't running long, writers should be doing other things regularly to improve in the type of writing they consider their primary writing mode. Here are three things I argue will improve your primary writing.

Child, Writing, Writer, Journal, Paper, Writer' Block1. Write If you're new to this blog, you may think a small child has broken in and taken over this guy's computer. But here's what I mean. You don't need to write on your novel every day. But you do need to write just about every day. One of the things that has made the greatest difference in the quality of my writing has been the fact that I've begun writing for a magazine. I started out writing book reviews, but have since branched out to play reviews and even general articles. I had no idea I was capable of writing non-fiction at all, much less do a decent job of it. But my editor says I'm actually good. And the bonus is that it's improved my writing on the days I'm working on my novels. I can't quantify it, but I can say that I approach my books with greater confidence and enthusiasm now that I've been writing in other modes on off days. So, if you can't get a job writing something else, then just do it on your own. Start a blog. Go on Pinterest and find writing prompts that you can use. Write poetry. Write letters to the editor. Write. All writing improves all writing.

Books, Bookstore, Book, Reader, Readers, Reading, Shop
2. Read. Read a lot. Stephen King said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." I agree. But the question is, what should you read? Everything. If, like me, you write mystery and detective novels, you should probably be reading in that genre. But don't stop there. Read romance. Read YA. Read non-fiction. Read literary fiction. Read book reviews. Read articles and books about writing. Read deeply. A recent article in Psychology Today concludes that what you read, how much you read, and how you read it makes more of a difference to the quality of your writing than earlier believed. It's the mental equivalent of saying that if you want to get stronger, you need to lift heavier weights. If you're interested, the article is here.

Girls, Colorful, Smile, Funny, Happiness, Women, Pretty3. Live intentionally There's this image of the writer as a hermit who lives holed up in front of a keyboard or a pad of paper doing nothing but writing, but I think we can all agree that the best writers are not just those with the best vocabulary or ability to turn a phrase, but also those who seem to have something interesting and unique to say about the human condition and about how we relate to one another. In order to do that, it's probably best if you actually, you know, relate sometimes with other people. Human people. Meat world people, not just the ones we make up in our heads. So go places. Do things. Live. Talk to people. Laugh. Cry. Get angry. And pay attention. Take notes. Listen to what people say and how they say it. Write it down. Notice how people treat each other and how it affects them. Write that down too. Those are the things that will make your characters come to life when you get back to your keyboard or pad of paper.

So those are my ideas for becoming a better writer. Probably not new ideas, but how many of those are there? What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Qualify? Additions? I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Finding a New Narrative Voice

As you may know if you follow my writing career, other than a few short stories, I've always written with one voice: Harry Shalan's. And people who know me well and read my books say that they hear me when they read Harry, so it's not much of a stretch to write him. Yes, hes' fictional and yes, he's married and yes he's good at a lot of things that I'm not and yes he's considerably younger than I, so he and I aren't the same person. But our sensibilities and attitudes toward the world are identical. We have the same moral compass and the same sense of humor and the same tastes in everything to women to food.

Which is why my new writing project is an exciting challenge for me. I'm writing with a third person narrator who is limited to knowledge of the thoughts of the main character. Part of what makes it tricky is maintaining the balance between allowing the narrator as a character to have a voice of its own and allowing the thoughts and level of development of the main character, who is currently an extremely gifted five-year-old right now, to bleed in. As she ages, so will her language and understanding of the world. But the narrator will remain static.
Sound, Wave, Voice, Listen, Digitalkunst
Another big change for me is the overall tone of the piece. It's not that it's humorless, but it's generally a much more serious take on the world than Harry's. Because I tend to be a sarcastic and humorous person, writing in a voice that isn't like that is tough sometimes. As I said, there are occasional humorous elements, but they are much more gentle and event-driven than in my Shalan books, in which the humor comes from the main characters' responses to situations.

Boxer Dogs, Dogs, Good Aiderbichl, Sanctuary
This is what Eddie looks like in my
head. He's modeled after my late
dog Ginger visually and in
I'm enjoying this change of pace, but if you're a fan of Harry, Dee, Jenn, Otis, and Eddie, have no fear. I've no intention of retiring them any time soon. I enjoy taking on the persona of Harry Shalan, Private Eye, the slightly bent but gallant modern knight, as he travels around town in his noble steed Ellie saving the day. So please be patient as I stretch my literary legs a little and see if I can find a different voice that's just as satisfying.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Difference Between a Writer And An Author

I've reflected a few times over the years on this blog about whether or not I'm a writer. In fact, it was one of the first posts I ever wrote, and I've re-examined the issue periodically. But now, looking back, I realize my focus may have been wrong. It could be that the proper question doesn't ask whether I'm a writer. Instead, I may need to ask myself whether I'm an author. I'm not a hundred percent sure they're the same thing.

I believe lots of people can call themselves writers. Bloggers, people who write poems or short stories or even novels are all writers. Literally the only thing that is required for you to call yourself a writer is that you do it relatively regularly, whether for publication or just because you want to.

Home Office, Workstation, Office, Business, NotebookBut I think maybe an author is a little different from a writer. I think it has to do with a few ways in which the two diverge, such as how seriously you take your craft (or even if you see what you do as a craft), how much time you put into it, and what you do with your writing when it's finished.

Writers write. That's all it takes. But I believe to become an author, I must take it beyond the simple placing of words on a page (or screen). Authors craft their words so that they do and say exactly what they want them to do and say. They closely examine all aspects of their writing, from word choice to sentence structure to character development to story arc. They see what they are doing as both an art and a craft. Truly great writers have a way with words, a facility for creating memorable characters and stories, but a writer who isn't an author won't spend the time and effort to make those words, characters, and stories have the maximum impact on the reader.

Entrepreneur, Startup, Start-Up, Man, Planing, BusinessAnother way in which not all writers are authors has to do with how much of a time commitment one gives to writing that the other doesn't. I believe I was a writer when I wrote my first book. I'm pretty sure I wasn't an author. I wrote a book, but I certainly can't say I crafted it. And that's the difference. I proofread it after I wrote it. But I didn't put in the time and work to make it approach the level of art. I'm not saying it's terrible, but I'm definitely not saying it's good. Actually I am saying that ugly brown thing I first published really was terrible. It wasn't good in any way. The cover was ugly and it just wasn't ready for publication. The process I go through now when I write a book is much more thorough and contemplative than it was then.

The final way in which the two things are different in my view can be illustrated by something a friend told me. He's a bookstore owner who carries a small section of local writers. He told me that I'm one of only two local authors who actually sell any books. He said a lot of folks have this feeling that they'd like to write a book, so they do, and they even go so far as to self-publish it. But then they stop. They don't write more books and they don't publicize the one they did write. I'd say I spend at least as much time on the non-writing half of writing as I do on the actual writing. I maintain my online presence daily. I enter writing contests. I do readings and signings. I go to book events like the WV Book Festival. I travel and meet with bookstore owners trying to get my book into as many stores as possible. I think that, as much as the actual writing, makes me an author.

Let me finish by saying that I didn't write this to exclude anyone or make anyone feel like less. This is purely a personal reflection. It's a reminder to myself that if I want to call myself an author, I need to take my writing more seriously. More seriously than I used to when I first decided I wanted to write books and more seriously today than I did yesterday. Otherwise, I'm just a writer. And I want to be an author.