Sunday, April 2, 2017

Helping Each Other Out

dark man alone thinking light lonely rest shadow people guy
This is how I often felt at author
events and how my new friend
must have felt.
If you stopped by this blog yesterday to read my weekly post, you no doubt saw the short note telling you I was off selling books. In terms of sales, it was a positive day. Have I mentioned teachers love books? Did I further mention this was an event about teaching writing? That means that most of these teachers were English teachers. They love books the most! But the most positive part of that trip, for me at least, was getting to make contact with other writers. I got to spend part of the day with a wonderful lady named Cheryl Stahle, with whom I teach at, but hardly ever get to actually talk to because our school is just so darn big.

But there was another author there. To be honest, I've lost her name. I gave her one of my cards, though, and asked her to get in touch with me. She asked a hundred questions because she seemed to really be struggling with getting herself out there. I think she only sold one book and when people asked for a card, she didn't have any. She was just there with a box of books. No way for people to sign up for a mailing list, no display of any kind--just her and books. And that wasn't the crux of the problem, in my opinion. It was the way she came across. Her lack of preparedness made her exude a dearth of confidence. People didn't stop and talk to her nearly as much as they did the rest of us. She was distressed by it, but didn't seem to be able to do anything about it.

As we talked, she told us that she was just an introvert and didn't enjoy talking with people that much. So the rest of us, who had been to several of these kinds of things, talked with her about how she could get past that and things that would help draw people in. Little things, like having a dish of candy at your table, or having something free to offer (I give away bookmarks with my contact info and website address). As soon as they stop, they're basically asking you to engage them. And if they ask a question, that's even better. By the end of the day, she seemed to have some ideas for how she was going to handle future sales events. She and I are even hoping to share a booth at the WV Book Festival in the fall.

Image may contain: 1 person, on stage and indoor
The incomparable Corey Shields at his
album debut concert. To his left is a
lovely young lady named Kaitlyn
Bowles, a former student of mine and
someone you'll be hearing big things
from musically. 
My encounter with this woman reminded me of when I was first starting out. I'm by no means an expert. I'm just a tiny little author who hasn't sold hundreds of thousands of books (or even thousands of books), but I've come so far since that first event where I was basically in her shoes. Completely unprepared, completely lacking confidence, and yet disappointed that people didn't flock to buy my books. It felt even better to be in the shoes of all of those other authors that have helped me over the last few years. So many people gave me advice, tips, and opportunities. It's important to find ways to pay that forward.

And then last night, I got to help out an indie artist of a different kind, and enjoy some great music in the process. Corey Shields, a guy who is way too young and way too cool to be my friend, is kind enough to be my friend nonetheless. And last night he had a concert to celebrate the debut of his latest album, Antioch Road. It was just so exciting. The energy and love and fun just oozed out of every corner of The Daily Grind on Market Street, where the concert took place. I, of course, bought one of his CDs. I encourage you to do the same. Just go to and tell them I sent you. You won't get anything special from it. I've just always wanted to say that.

PS--This is the last week my blog will be on this website. Starting next week, it will be housed on my website, I hope you'll continue reading my weekly posts, and while you're there, you'll look around at the other fun things on my site.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

At An Author Event

I'm in South Charleston at a teacher training event, but as an author. I'm one of six authors selling their books during breaks. So, I'll do a full post tomorrow, but I wanted you to know that I didn't just fall of the face off the earth!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

How Do I Write Effective Dialogue?

I got this question at my most recent reading and my short answer was that I'm not sure I do, at least in terms of writing that is ever going to be commercially viable. And that's because my dialogue apparently doesn't follow the rules. I tried following the rules for exactly one book. I didn't like it and it's strongly my sense that the people who read the book didn't like it. I got that sense when they said, "I didn't like it."

Let me back up a little. As you may or may not know, before I went independent I had dreams of going old school, legit, agented publishing with a publishing company. When I finished what I thought was the final draft of Harsh Prey, I started querying agents. I did that for two years, sending out multiple queries every month. Not a sniff. In fact, I literally got one actual human response. Every single other one was the dreaded auto reject that any aspiring author can practically recite from memory: "Thank you for your excellent submission. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time, but please don't give up. It may be just the vehicle someone else is looking for."

But like I said, I did get one human response and it was a highly encouraging one. It was actual
extemporaneously composed words from a human being who clearly had read the excerpt that I had sent. She spoke specifically of characters and scenes. A New York literary agent actually read something I wrote. She said she liked Harry and his voice but I needed to work on pacing and dialogue issues. That was great! I mean, it was terrible because I had no idea what she meant by that, but it was great because it was actual direction from someone who worked in the business. By the way, she also said I should feel free to re-query when I fixed the problems. I did. No reply at all. Not even an auto-reject.

So I found someone who knew what the agent meant: an editor. She explained that I was using too much detail in my descriptions, that people didn't want to know every single object in a room. And she said that my dialogue was too long too. She said that in commercial fiction, dialogue is chopped down and doesn't sound like people really talk at all. She said the idea isn't to re-create the way people actually speak, but instead is just to convey information and allow the narration do the heavy lifting. For instance, in some scene, I may have two people eating dinner and my version may look like this:

"Could you please pass the salt?"
"Here you go. You want the pepper too?"
"Sure, thanks. So, did you have a nice day?"
"Well, it started out rough, but yeah, it ended up great. That client I've been working with finally green lighted my proposal."
"Wow, that's fantastic! I'm excited for you."
"Thanks. I'm excited too."

The more commercially viable version makes the characters sound like Tonto to me:

"Pass the salt?"
"Pepper too?"
"Sure. Nice day?"
"Started rough. Got better. Won an account."

That is what a lot of commercial fiction dialogue actually sounds like, but I wasn't comfortable with it. I wanted to be commercially viable, though, so I gave in to the man, so to speak. Lots of short, terse, clipped dialogue that made the characters sound like they were only budgeted so many words a day and they didn't want to pay for overages. I chopped a full 12,000 words from my original manuscript. I had to admit that the pacing was a lot better. The story clipped along now, whereas it kind of sauntered before. But I still didn't like the dialogue. It just didn't fit my style. I'm a dialogue guy. I will often take a scene that was mostly narrative and convert it to almost all dialogue. But that's how it finally went out when I finally decided that two years of querying was enough and went independent.

People seemed to like it okay. In fact, some people really loved it. But the main negative comment (other than embarrassing proofreading errors that they pointed out and have since been fixed) was that the dialogue just didn't ring real. It was too short and clipped and terse. It didn't sound how people talk. So I went back and re-wrote all the dialogue in Kisses and Lies that I'd already written and made it the way I was comfortable with. I used full sentences and, in many cases, let the dialogue tell the story, while giving the reader a real sense of who the characters are by the way they talk. And the dialogue, especially between Harry and Dee, is my favorite part of all of the books. I hear the conversations in my head and record them verbatim.

Does that mean I'll never be commercially viable? Maybe. Maybe even probably. Will I change it? Probably not. If I got an offer from a publishing house that said they will definitely publish me if I alter it, I guess I would have to consider it. But I wouldn't definitely say yes unless their offer had a lot of zeroes attached to it. Like I said, Harry and Dee are two of my favorite people, real or fictional. And one of the things I love about them is how they speak with each other. It would be awfully hard to give that up.

So what do you think. If you've read my books, which version do you like best? I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Where Do My Characters Come From, The Final Chapter

As I hope you know, I've spent the last three weeks answering the number one question I get asked at author and book events, which is, "Where do your characters come from?" I talked about Harry, Dee, and Jenn, and I want to wrap up this week talking about a few characters who are inspired directly by folks I know. 
The real-life Keith, Jennifer, Jonathan
and Maria, aka Pepper.

The first pair I want to talk about is the pastor of Harry and Dee's church and his wife. Their names are Jonathan and Pepper and they are based on two of my best friends, Jonathan and Maria Delgado. Jonathan is the Family Life Minister at my church and Maria, his wife, is known, mostly by me, as Pepper. I've talked about her before. She has become my unpaid personal assistant and designated beta reader just because she wants to be. And they are both my great friends. In the storyline, Jonathan performs the memorial service for Emma Grace and Pepper becomes Jenn's confidante after she is rescued from the clutches of her crazy father. They are pretty much exact replicas of my Jonathan and Pepper in that they are some of the kindest, most loving people I know. And, in a fun twist, the fictional Pepper knows an author named Joe Stephens. 

With my Dr. Mathur at a
Baltimore Orioles game.
The next character that is based on a real life person is Dr. Jennifer Schoenhut, who was Dee's therapist as she learned to cope with the loss of Emma Grace and then Harry's as he tries to overcome the guilt of maiming Jenn's biological father. Dr. Schoenhut, known affectionately to Harry as Doc, is based on the female half of my other best couple friends, Keith and Jennifer Schoenhut. Keith hasn't appeared directly in any of the books (yet), and the real-life Jennifer is not a therapist, but the fictional one is just like her in pretty much every other way. She's beautiful just like the real one. They have a baby named Samuel (my godson) and she is such a good listener who loves people enough to tell them the truth that they need to hear even when it is not necessarily what they want to hear. She helps Harry to become accountable for what he has done and to find his way to grace and forgiveness. It's that kind of compassion and love that I see from my Jennifer all the time. 

Finally, a character who is definitely based on a real-life person is Dr. Priya Mathur. Her from-the-real-world counterpart is Dr. Poonam Mathur. While my Dr. Mathur is not an OB/GYN (she studies infectious diseases), her caring manner and brilliance are definitely just like the fictional one. And she's so humble that she will disagree with everything I just said. But don't believe her. I may be prejudiced because I love her like a daughter, but I'm also right. 

So that winds up this portion of my series on reader questions. Next week: Where do I get my story ideas? 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Where Do My Characters Come From, Part 3

The cover of the book where we meet
Jenn Bezaleel, who becomes Jenn
Shalan. The young lady on the cover
is Courtney Stackpole, a former
It's the third week of my series-within-a-series in which I'm answering questions I get at author events, specifically what inspires the different characters in my books. I've already talked about Harry and Dee Shalan, the titular characters in my Shalan Adventures series. This week, it's their adopted daughter's turn.

For those of you who haven't read the books, Jenn Bezaleel is a runaway that Harry is employed to find. I say Harry instead of Harry and Dee because Dee is dealing with an advanced and complicated pregnancy. But when Harry locates Jenn, who he's discovered has been sexually abused by her father, he calls in Dee to talk with Jenn, figuring correctly that she'll respond more positively to a woman than a man. Long story short, Dee and Jenn fall in love instantly, in the mother-daughter sense. It takes a bit longer for Jenn to warm up to Harry, but eventually, their bond is unbreakable as well. Along the way, we find that Jenn's stepdad, an old friend of her father, has been trying to molest her as well, with the knowledge of her father. So the Shalans take in Jenn, eventually adopting her. So Jenn Bezaleel becomes Jenn Shalan.

So where did I get Jenn's character? The short answer is she is every female student I've ever known and loved like a daughter, which, to some extent, is every one of them. But in reality, and some teachers won't admit this, we bond more closely with some students than others. Over the years, I've had students, male and female, who have gone beyond being students and become friends and even like extended family. I have two former students who were on my speech and debate team years back who are as close as I'll probably ever get to having real daughters. Jenna and Poonam live far away, but stay in touch regularly. They visit me when they can, which isn't often because they have very busy jobs, and I visit them as well. I love them so much that it's hard to imagine being able to love a biological child more. So in that way, she is inspired by them and my unfulfilled desire to have "real" children. I never could, so I do it through Harry.

That having been said, Jenn is really none of them. As I've said before, Jenn has the face of a former student named Courtney, who kindly agreed to be the cover model for the book, but the resemblance
Jenna and Poonam with me, along with
Jenna's husband Mitch.
is superficial. I didn't base Jenn on any one of those young ladies. She is, in the truest sense, a character I created from scratch. Yes, she resembles many of my former students and even some of my friends, but only in the most generic sense. I could point to lots of women I've met over the years who share some of her traits, but not enough that I could say that I based that trait on any of them. Similar to Dee, Jenn is my idealized vision of an adopted daughter. She's been through a lot and she needs protection, but she hasn't let it misshape her to the point that she's incapable of love. She's smart, loving, enjoys being taken care of but is independent at the same time. She's taken the awful things that have happened to her and channeled them into a desire to help others who are being hurt by someone in power over them, which is why she wants to follow in her adopted parents' footsteps.

So, to sum up, Jenn Shalan is inspired by every female student I've ever known, but based on none of them. That may or not make sense, but it's the truth.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Where Do My Characters Come From, Part 2

As you may recall, I'm in the midst of a series of posts in which I answer questions that I commonly hear at author events. Last week, I talked about Harry Shalan. This week, it's his better half, Dee.

Dee is much more fictional than Harry. She's not based on anyone in real life, though she is probably very distantly inspired by my ex-wife, who is a redhead and a nurse who has a beautiful singing voice. But that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. While Harry's family is based on mine, Dee's is completely fictional. She has a family history of difficult pregnancies, which is nothing but a fiction for the sake of the story.

Dee is Harry's partner and equal in a lot of ways. He openly admits she's a better shot than he is, at least against paper targets. She's athletic, keeping up with Harry in the gym. She can more than hold her own in hand-to-hand combat, and she's got a quick, deductive mind. And on top of all that, she's a bit of a bombshell. So in that, she's not really inspired by any one true person. When I write her, though, I see Karen Gillan, who played Dr. Who companion Amelia Pond, minus the adorable Scottish accent, of course. If my books were ever made into movies, she would definitely be who I would want to play Dee.

Karen Gillan (
There is one part of Harry and Dee's life that is drawn from real life, at least in part. How they fell in love is inspired by the night I met my now ex-wife in that it is similar in nature, if not in the exact incident itself. Again, I fictionalized the event to fit the flow of the story, but I did hear Andrea before I saw her and fell in love with her voice. But in real life, it was literally the first time I ever saw her. In "Harry and the Redheaded Angel," they had known each other as schoolmates, but were meeting for the first time as adults.

So, while Dee has a tiny kernel of inspiration from real life, she's really just pretty much my dream woman. Does she have flaws? Yes, but they're flaws that come from loving too much. She's high maintenance, but in a good way. Her faith is important to her and so is her family. She's loving, affectionate, kind, drop-dead gorgeous but completely unaware of it, fun-loving, athletic, sexy, and she laughs at Harry's jokes. Who could ask for more? Oh, and did I mention the red hair?

Next week: Jenn Bezaleel Shalan