Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Bliss of An Uncluttered Day

calendar, agenda, planner, notebook, meeting, business, office, desk, meeting, workingI started to turn off my alarm this morning, but then I remembered that I have nowhere to be until 7:15 tonight, which means I am free for the entire day and I didn't want to miss any of it. I did lie in bed for about twenty minutes just enjoying the fact that I didn't have to get up and be ready to go somewhere. But then it was up for tea and devotions and browsing the Internet while I let my thoughts on my blog gel in a meandering, leisurely pace. I read a little, had some breakfast and another cup of tea, and here I am, two hours later, writing my post. After this, I might read some more--I'm getting to the good part of my book--or I may FINALLY get some writing done.

I have been thinking a lot about retirement lately. Trying to decide at what point I'm going to hang up my teacher spurs and turn to writing full-time. Despite the fact that I'm just in love with my kids again, there are times when I yearn for the ability to do this regularly. Get up early because I want to. Read. Write. Promote. Exercise. As my old friend Dan Daniel always used to say, make every week six Saturdays and a Sunday.

clock, timeBut then I think about just how much I was looking forward to today. A single uncluttered day in the midst of calendar slots filled with school activities and writing activities and church activities. And it takes me back to the summer, when I had great long stretches of days with literally nothing requiring my time. I took them for granted. I took no great joy in them. I failed to take advantage in the way I should have. I mean yes, I did travel a good deal and spend time with people I treasure, but I didn't get nearly the writing done that I could have and I definitely didn't read as much as I could have. Why? Because I had all the time in the world. If I didn't get 5,000 words written today, that's all right--I have tomorrow. Until I didn't. And then I looked back on all that time I didn't use how I could have. I'm not on a guilt trip. It was a good summer. But what I'm saying is that I tend not to appreciate free time unless I don't have it. Intellectually, I know that it's finite, but I'm not always intellectual. Sometimes I'm lazy and unfocused.
nature, outdoor, green, grass, forest, trees, plant, road, path, sky, wood, peaceful
But not on days like today. Today I'm like a laser. Reading. Writing. Cleaning up my room. Enjoying the fact that tomorrow, when it's back to the rat race of church and school and ClutchMOV stuff, I'll be able to look back at a day spent well.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Happy Birthday To Me!

For my birthday, I
became Batman.
It's my birthday, so I slept in today. When I woke up, my brain couldn't comprehend why it was so bright outside. I've gotten up before dawn seven days a week for well over a month. The last time I slept past daybreak was sometime in the summer. But I had a good excuse, aside from the whole birthday thing. Last night was my school's homecoming. As the assistant advisor to the Student Council, I had school all day, ran and grabbed some dinner, and then was at school again until about 11:15. It was a long but satisfying day. But I needed to get some sleep, so I turned off my alarm.

The other day my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday. When I was younger, I always looked forward to being asked that because it meant the big day was coming. Then, when I got a little older, it was less of a happy thing and more of a reminder that I wasn't getting younger. Now, I'm in a good place in my life. I don't want to rush anything, but I'm at peace with the aging process. A lot of that has to do with my complete conviction that this life is only the beginning of a great adventure. Once this body dies, I'll get a new, perfect body and my soul will live on in the unending love of God. And so dying doesn't scare me like it used to. Which means I can celebrate birthdays all I want without an ounce of dread. I'm happy to say that I'm 53. I made it another year. I'm excited to see what the next one brings.

But the question still remains: what do I want for my birthday? Well, that's a toughie because it's hard to think of much that I could ask for that I don't already have. I have a big, close family who love me very much. I have a group of friends who are also my family. I have two great jobs, both of which I love; a comfortable, clean place to live; and a cool new ride. The one thing I never got to do was raise children, but I get my parenting instincts out on my students, some of whom have become just like my children. And there's a handsome young lad named Samuel Schoenhut who I love to the moon and back. I'm excited to help his parents guide him to adulthood in any way that I can.

So what does that leave? Frankly, not much. But if you put a gun to my head, I'd have to say--after I asked you to stop pointing the gun at me--that there are a few things I'd like to ask for this year. Here the are:


  • A publishing contract for my new, not-finished-yet book. I've enjoyed the independent thing with The Shalan Adventures and I intend to continue that, but I'm still old-school enough to want to publish at least one book traditionally. It doesn't have to be a bestseller. I just want to be able to say I did that. 
  • Speaking of the Shalan Adventures, I'd love to hear back from the production company who contacted me about the production rights on them. That would be a great present. 
  • Last, but most important, my wish is that the world and all its inhabitants would learn to live in the love of Christ. 
So there's my list. Publishing companies and studios, how about we get on those first two? As for the last one, if you want to know more about my faith, all you have to do is ask. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

A Fun Night And Some Good Questions

Image result for serenity coffee house vienna wvAs some of you who follow me on social media or just know me in real life know, I was the featured artist last night at the monthly meeting of a poets' group that meets at Serenity Coffee House, a neat local place. I spoke, read from Dawn of Grace, and answered questions. When I was finished, I sold and signed some books. It was a really successful evening and not just because I made some sales.

The audience, made up of four people I didn't know along with three I did (shout-out to my cousin Joyce and two of my students who came to see me), was really appreciative. They laughed when they should have and one or two times I even heard some quiet exclamations of surprise. And when I was finished talking, the four folks I didn't know, who turned out to be the regulars, all asked wonderful questions. One asked if I did research before I wrote because the events and procedures I describe in the book seem so real. Another asked how I pulled off such good dialogue. Those questions had some pretty big compliments in them, things that all authors love to hear. But I thought their questions were worth discussing.
microphone, music, audio, podcast, musician, concert, stage, show, lights, blurry, bokeh
The short answer to the first question is yes, I do research. A lot of the time, that involves web searches that might make the FBI question whether I'm a serial killer. But when I want to know how the cops do stuff, I use my handy dandy cop down the hall, Chris Morehead. He's the Prevention Resource Officer (PRO) at my school. He's a regular city policeman, but his main beat is Parkersburg High School. So if I want to know police procedures or what a cop would do or even how a cop thinks, I ask him. He's been an amazing resource. For instance, in Dawn of Grace, I needed to know how a Parkersburg cop (Chris said they don't mind being called that.) would reach out to police from another city to find out about a case. He talked me through all the channels and permutations. He told me things I never would have considered. It was invaluable. And he's been a resource without even talking to me. Just watching him--how he moves, how he interacts with people, the difference between regular everyday Chris and Chris in cop mode--has helped me feel like I'm portraying police in a clearer and more positive light.

police car, sirens, lights, cop, crime, driving, speeding, roadAnd the short answer to the other question is that in order to write good dialogue, I spend a lot of time eavesdropping. Just listening to how people speak to each other helps me to write realistic conversations. Ironically, the one piece of professional advice I ever received was that my dialogue needed to stop sounding like real conversation. It should be clipped and quick. So I did that in my first book, Harsh Prey. It didn't feel right. The book didn't sound the way it should to me, but I went on because the pros said I was doing it how I should. But then I decided that, since I'm publishing these things on my own, I don't need to answer to anyone, so I can write the dialogue the way I want. And behold, everyone who read both books said the second was way better, in large part because the dialogue in Kisses and Lies sounded more real. You could actually hear the voices of the characters. You see, my writing is kind of dialogue-driven, whereas some other writers are more into narrative. When whole long sections of the story are dominated by dialogue, I think it's just wrong to make it sound like it's between Tonto and the Hulk. And my readers seem to agree.

So those are my writing tips for today. Make friends with a cop and write dialogue that doesn't sound like it came from a caveman. Hope you found that helpful.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sometimes The Best Way To Improve Your Writing Is Not To Write

We all read those blog posts by writers (myself included) that say that you should write every day. Create a routine, write at least a little bit daily. And for the most part, it's good advice. If you aren't a writer but working to get better at something, the same rule of thumb applies. To get better, you need to practice regularly. 

ipad, tablet, calendar, time, keyboard, macbook, laptop, technology, office, desk, business, meetingBut sometimes the best thing I do for my writing is not to write. When writing becomes routine and I start to lose the joy of it, then some time off is just the ticket. I'm not talking about taking a year off or even a whole month. I mean a few days or even a week or two. And I'm not talking about not getting my writing in because I'm busy. I'm saying that sometimes it's best to simply say--and even put it on my calendar if need be--that I'm not going to try to write this week. I'm going to take a few days away and do other things. Maybe take a trip and not take my computer so I'm not tempted. Or lie in bed for fifteen extra minutes in the morning, just enjoying the opportunity to wake up slowly instead of hitting the ground already running. Take longer walks, read more, visit with friends--all the things we sacrifice for this thing we've chosen to do but still get a little frustrated by how much of our lives it consumes sometimes. 

beach, houses, sand, footprints, beach, rocks, shore, purple, sky, clouds, ocean, seaAnd by doing that, I find that when I go back to the writing, the joy has reappeared. I look forward to writing again. And I notice that I see my work-in-progress with fresh eyes. I become aware of plot-holes that weren't evident when I was in the midst of writing. I am excited to hear the voices of my characters again, to see where they've decided to go while I wasn't consciously thinking about them. 

How do I know how long to take off? There's no formula. I guess the best answer is just long enough. Long enough to be refreshed but not so long that I lose the habit and also lose the feel for the book I'm working on. Long enough that I start to miss it. 
restaurant, bar, drinks, beer, alcohol, smoking, people, talking, laughing, smiling, fun, tables, chairs, signs, license plates, friends
So, how about you? Whether you're a writer or singer or artist of another kind or you build houses or work in an office, if there's something you do for joy--as a vocation or a hobby--do you ever feel the need to step away from it for a while? If so, how do you decide when to go back to it? I'm interested to know what you think. 

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


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


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
DAWN OF GRACE: A SHALAN ADVENTURE

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.