Sal Terranova and Camden Templeton are cousins separated by upbringing, the Atlantic Ocean, and a common language. Then fate (with help from a run of bad luck and a dead uncle) throws them together in the least likely of places: Texas. Exiled in this strange land, they must band together in order to save the family bookstore from financial ruin, from its own insane employees, and probably from themselves. This is the story of what happens when The Sopranos meets Fawlty a bookstore.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Great Books for Writers

Countless books claim to give indispensable advice to writers on everything from how to create three-dimensional characters to how to get published, and more come out every year. Writer's Digest devotes an entire book club to these books, many of which are not worth the money or the time, because their "inside information" is nothing more than you learned in 9th grade English class.

However, there are a few books that every writer should read. Some contain useful nuts-and-bolts information on the craft of writing, and some are more memoir in nature, giving an insight into the writing life itself. Here is a list of must-have books:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. An amazing book, even if you're not a Stephen King fan. Part memoir and part instruction, King excels at both, creating a book that is impossible to put down. He also uses one of his own short stories to demonstrate his process for the thing writers hate most: editing. It's a rare look into the mind of one of the most prolific writers of our times.

Writing Fiction by the Gotham Writer's Workshop. This book packs a lot of great information into its 300 pages. Each chapter tackles a specific aspect of fiction writing (plot, character, etc), and each is written by published authors who are members of the Gotham Writer's Workshop, New York's acclaimed creative writing school. There are points within each chapter at which you are given exercises that allow you immediately put what you've just learned into practice. This interactive approach is much more valuable than the simple lecture format of most books on writing.

Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. This book is so much a part of the culture of writing that most of the time it is simply referred to as "Strunk and White." It's the one most people never opened in college, but for the serious writer, no single book will be more helpful, especially when you begin the editing process. Interestingly, this is also a book highly recommended by Stephen King in his book, On Writing.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. By far the best book on the least-favorite part of the writing process. Editing your own work is extremely difficult, but the advice these two professional editors give will make your editing more effective, if not more fun. There are numerous illustrations for each point they make, all drawn from the hundreds of books Browne and King have edited.

Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa. This is an excellent book, especially for novice writers. Peruvian novelist Llosa gives instruction to the young novelist of the title in the form of twelve letters. The book is wonderfully written, so well in fact that you learn things about the craft of writing without even realizing it at first. Llosa also does something few writing instructors have the guts to: he tells writers to break the "rules." All in all, much more fun than a stuffy textbook. And if you’ve never read Mario Vargas Llosa’s work, but his name seems familiar for some reason, it’s probably because he just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are other books on writing that are very good, but you cannot go wrong starting with these five. They cover the full spectrum of the writing life and writing process, and won't take up much space on your bookshelf either.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Print Still Matters

A few questions sometimes come up when I tell people about my plans for publishing The Last Word: “Why bother releasing a print copy? Isn't it easier to just release an e-book? Do we really still even need printed books?” In most cases this is a reaction to media stories on the death of print, all of which have proven to be completely inaccurate. Over the past year or more, sales of e-books have leveled off, while sales of printed books have remained fairly consistent. In other words, the two formats are coexisting quite nicely, thank you very much.

As to why I am taking the more difficult path of releasing The Last Word in print (there will be an e-book version as well), here are a few reasons:

1. Printed books provide a tactile experience. Music is heard, and films are both seen and heard, but books are experienced both visually and by touch. There is an aspect to the feel of books (the smooth glossy cover, the roughness and even smell of the paper) that provides a physical sensation that is both separate from and intimately linked to the story you are reading. We bond not only with the author (novels being the only art form that requires many hours of commitment on the part of the audience) but with the book itself.

2. Great novels, from War and Peace to The Shadow of the Wind were not meant to be read on a digital screen, no matter how much “like paper” they try to make that screen. Most of us spend our entire workday staring at a computer screen, plus additional hours in front of a computer, television, or iPhone after we get home; in fact, you're looking at screen right now. The last thing many readers want to do is spend even more time staring at a screen to read a book.

3. Books can be written in, dog-eared, loaned to friends, stuffed in your back pocket, browsed for on rainy afternoons, and then sold to a used bookshop for cash to buy yet more books. Try that with a Kindle.

4. Most readers (and we have always been remarkably few as percentage of the total population) like having a personal library. It may or may not contain highly collectible items like a signed Hemingway or first-edition Faulkner, but a bookcase loaded with books can be much more than a simple collection. It can serve as a timeline of our lives: the copy of Homer you read in the same college class as your future wife, that Robert Parker Spenser novel you read in the hospital waiting for your son to be born, that copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets you read to your daughters over a snowy weekend, or the biography of Somerset Maugham you discovered in a cool little shop in London. These are books you pass down through generations, even though they may have value only within the context of your own family. 

 5. Finally, on a more self-centered note I like the idea of holding the book I wrote in my hands, and putting it into other people's hands. I see my name on a screen every single day, from e-mails to work presentations to this blog. But seeing it on an actual book is something special. On a bookstore shelf I would fall somewhere between Wilkie Collins and Joseph Conrad...bookshelves make strange bedfellows.

I was initially against the very idea of e-books; like others I saw them as a threat to printed books, and as you can see I have a fondness for printed books. But in reality, e-books have been more blessing than curse. More people are reading, and more books are affordable to them. So I have buried the hatchet with e-books, but I still love printed books more. Which is why I'll go through the added work and expense to publish mine both ways.

The Last Word is coming...stay tuned.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Opening Lines

As I undertake the seemingly never-ending task of editing my novel, I keep going back to the opening line. The opening line of a novel can set the tone for the whole book, and there are many that have become as famous as the book that contains them. This got me to thinking about some of the iconic first fines in literature.

What follows is by no means an exhaustive list of these great first lines; it is simply a few of my favorite opening sentences, almost all from novels I have actually read (this means leaving out classics like "Call me Ishmael" from Moby Dick...saw the movie, though). I have added the first line from my own novel at the end simply because I mentioned it above (and because I like the idea of being in the same list as some of these other authors). Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section:
"I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time." - Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind
"All children mythologize their birth." - Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale
"Boog warned me about Washington, but until I saw the rich lady set her pugs on the dinner table, I didn’t take him seriously." – Larry McMurtry, Cadillac Jack
"Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn." – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles." – Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero
"I guess by now there can't be too many people anywhere who haven't heard about Billy Clyde Puckett, the humminest sumbitch that ever carried a football." – Dan Jenkins, Semi-Tough
"I have never begun a novel with more misgiving." - W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge

"My father had a face that could stop a clock." - Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

"Jude had a private collection." – Joe Hill, Heart-Shaped Box

"Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the right path had been lost." – Dante, Inferno (yes, I know this wasn't a novel)

"Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth." – Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

"A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story." – Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel’s Game

"Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he stayed up all night, was seated at the breakfast table." – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

"It was a pleasure to burn." - Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

"I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up." – Jack Kerouac, On The Road

"Salvatore Terranova hates to sweat, but not as much as he hates the idea of getting fat like every other man in his family." - Paul Combs, The Last Word

The Last Word is coming...stay tuned.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Ortiz Almighty

I was working on a follow-up to my post on indie publishing, thinking I would go into a little more detail about the path I'm taking, when I was rudely interrupted of my characters, and he is insisting that my next entry be an interview with him. Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: sometimes my characters talk to me. No, I don't actually see them, and it's not voices-in-my-head-loony-bin stuff (at least I hope not). But when you spend months, sometimes years, with even fictional people, they have a way of becoming part of your life.

This particular character is one that's been around for a while, but who plays a fairly small yet entertaining role in The Last Word. He has a bigger part in the sequel, but don't tell him that; his ego is too big already. So without further ado, allow me to introduce the one, the only: Luis Ortiz.

Me: Good morning, Luis.

Ortiz: Good morning, bro.

Me: So what exactly are you so eager to talk about?

Ortiz: My new novel, of course.

Me: I think you mean my new novel.

Ortiz: You are merely a scribe. I am the star.

Me: Actually, you're a fairly minor character in the book.

I can see that saying this was a huge mistake. Ortiz is indignant, and rises from his chair (at least in my mind I see him rise from a chair).

Me: Where are you going?

Ortiz: Ortiz is never a minor character. Remove me from your plot and watch everything fall apart. I am the straw that stirs the drink.

Me: Fine. Sit down and we'll discuss it. Wait, is that a turkey leg?

Ortiz: It is indeed. Delicious.

Me: It's 9:00 a.m.

Ortiz: I am not constrained by insignificant matters such as time and space. I will feast like the kings of old whenever the mood strikes me, bro.

Me: Uh, right. So why don't you tell our readers what you think of the book.

Ortiz: It goes without saying that any scene in which I am present is on a level with Shakespeare, Dante, Dickens, or any of my countrymen from Puerto Rico (we are natural storytellers). The rest is quite good as well; how can you go wrong with mobsters, books, and the lovely Camden?

Me: That would be Camden Templeton.

Ortiz: Si.

Me: Now she's a major character, along with Sal.

Ortiz: Mira, you are starting to anger me Paco.

Me: Calm down.

Ortiz: No, I will not continue to take this abuse. You could have just as easily made me the male protagonist instead of Sal. A guy from New Jersey over one from Puerto Rico? A travesty!

Me: You'll get your turn. You just have to wait a while, like Michael Corleone had to wait in The Godfather.

This slows him down; he has a near-religious reverence for The Godfather films.

Ortiz: I will accept this for now, out of respect for Don Vito, but if you do not keep your word...

Me: I'll sleep with the fishes?

Ortiz: Nothing so painless.

Me: You do realize that I could just delete you, right? After all, I created you.

At this Ortiz laughs so hard I'm afraid he'll choke on his turkey leg.

Ortiz: Silly Paco, you did not create me, I simply allowed you to find me. As with all "characters," I have always existed and always will exist. And sometimes I allow you to confine me to a fixed time and place with paper and ink.

Me: You seriously believe that? This conversation isn't even real, you know. It's all happening in my head.

Ortiz: To quote Albus Dumbledore...

Me: From the Harry Potter books?

Ortiz: Yes, and do not interrupt. To quote Albus Dumbledore: "Of course this is all happening in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it's not real?" A great man, Dumbledore. We're playing racquetball when I tire of talking to you. In fact, I really should be going.

Me: You barely talked about the book at all.

Ortiz: Further proof that you are not the puppet master you fancy yourself. I said what I wanted to say.

Me: You're not even going to tell people to be sure to read it when it comes out?

Ortiz: Everyone should definitely read it when it is published (and you really should hurry up with that, Paco). It not only prominently features me, Luis Ortiz, as well as some of my very best friends, I also came up with the title.

Me: You did not. You wanted to call it Ortiz Almighty.

Ortiz: Is that not the title you chose?

Me: No, Luis. The title is The Last Word.

Ortiz: I see. I like mine better. Well, I must be off; not good to keep a wizard waiting.

Me: Thanks for dropping by. See you soon.

There you have it, dear reader. This is what I deal with on a semi-regular basis, and what you can be a part of when The Last Word debuts later this year. Ortiz is right about one thing: I really should hurry up with that.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Indie Publishing

Independent (or indie) publishing isn't a term you hear very often; usually the phrase that is attached to authors who don't go through one of the Big Six publishing houses or one of the many small presses is “self-published.” That term has a certain validity, but if we call self-starters in other fields indie filmmakers or indie bands or indie bookstores, then why shouldn't it be applied to authors as well? I believe it should, and in this post I will explain some of the reasons I have chosen this path for my novel, The Last Word. 

I could, of course, follow the standard practice and send out query letters to literary agents. Most would never get past the interns that cull through slush piles seeking gems for the agent. Perhaps one or two of these readers would recommend requesting the entire manuscript, but once the agent read it he would exclaim: “There are no zombie vampires seeking BDSM-love in a dystopian future society here! No one will buy this!” Even the best-case scenario would require paying said agent 15% of my earnings for the life of the book just for getting it accepted by a Big Six publisher. Pass. 

I am also (sadly) not getting any younger, and time matters. If and when a publishing house “buys” your book, it takes 18 to 24 months from that point before the thing sees the light of day. I have no clue why the traditional publishing industry remains so unbelievably slow; Gutenberg himself printed books faster than this, and he had to set the type by hand. I calculate that even with editing, cover design, file creation and upload, reviews, marketing, printing, and shipping (plus a 30-day Kickstarter project to pay for all of the aforementioned items) I can have The Last Word on store shelves no later than mid-September, and possibly much sooner. 

Part of the knock against indie authors/publishers is that the quality is low; this is very often true, but should not be. Low quality (typos, grammar issues, book covers that look like a kindergarten class drew them) is due completely to the laziness of the individual author. Far too many would-be writers are content to slap together a story and publish the first draft through Create Space for free, only to be shocked when they never sell a single copy. It takes a good deal more effort to publish the right way, but it’s worth it in the long run. After all, your name is on the thing. 

With the resources available, every indie author/publisher can and should have their manuscript reviewed by a freelance editor, the cover professionally designed (not made from some cookie-cutter template), and the final proof checked by a proofreader. And always have a group of “first readers” that will be completely honest with you about whether the thing is any good or not. Finally, if your goal is to see your book sold in bookstores (rather than just online), you cannot use one of the many Print-On-Demand services that offer neither wholesale discounts to booksellers nor the ability to return unsold books for credit. No store, from your local indie to Barnes and Noble. will touch your book if those two things aren’t in place. This is why I will be using Ingram: they offer wholesale discounts to booksellers, returns, worldwide distribution, and have the industry’s largest active book inventory. 

Finally, there is the issue of marketing. Whether you are traditionally published or indie published, unless your name is John Grisham or Janet Evanovich or Dan Brown (good lord, Dan Brown) you will be doing every bit of the marketing on your own. The margins are too thin for even the Big Six publishers to spend marketing dollars on a mid-list author, let alone a rookie. If I’m going to have to do this critical task on my own, I might as well do the rest as well. 

So after six long paragraphs, I can sum up why I am taking this route in a single word: control. I will have final say on everything from the title and the cover art (two things big publishers love to tinker with) to the marketing to what the final price will be. Having total control can be a little scary, but again, it’s my name on the thing.  

I predicted the likelihood of rants in this blog’s opening post…apparently this was the first. 

The Last Word is coming…stay tuned.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Runnin' Down a Dream

If you're reading this (and I hope you are, especially now that the Super Bowl is over...what a beat down that was) then you likely have some questions. These questions will range from "who is this guy?" to "what the heck is The Last Word?" to "what is the capital of Slovenia?" I'll knock out the last question first: Ljubljana (and you were probably looking for Wikipedia, by the way). Now on to the important stuff.

As to who I am, you can see most of what you need to know about me in The Bottom Line sidebar to the right, but to make it easy I'll repeat it here. I am a writer living in the not always literary state of Texas, and my ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take me a while.

As to what The Last Word is, well, it's a novel. I would sum it up thusly: "Sal Terranova and Camden Templeton are cousins separated by upbringing, the Atlantic Ocean, and a common language. Then fate (with help from a run of bad luck and a dead uncle) throws them together in the least likely of places: Texas. Exiled in this strange land, they must band together in order to save the family bookstore from financial ruin, from its own insane employees, and probably from themselves. This is the story of what happens when The Sopranos meets Fawlty a bookstore."

It's actually a lot more than that, but that's my best summary as of today. The novel has been revised multiple times, and is ready to go to an editor to clean up all the typos I can't see because I've looked at the damn thing every day for months and all I see is the way it's supposed to look. But more on that in the next post. I hope to use this blog to chronicle the journey from completing the manuscript (done) to publication (obviously not done), and will probably throw in more than a few rants as well.

The Last Word is coming...stay tuned.