NEW BOOK COMING…

“Set in the outback of the independent leagues, Kaufman has written a poignant baseball romance twice over—aging, iron-gloved, home-run slugging Parker Westfall’s love for the game and for a young knuckle-balling female pitcher. Refreshing and real. Read it and weep for all of us who love the game of baseball beyond reason.”

~Jean Hastings Ardell, Co-author, Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey

Full Cover

Today at Chase Field in Arizona, my Colorado Rockies start the 2018 season against the Diamondbacks. For two reasons, I am looking forward to this season more than any in recent memory. First, the Rockies were competitive last year, and may contend for a championship. Second, my novel, The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song will be released by Black Rose Writing in time for the All-Star Game.

Much like the Rockies decade-long quest for contention, my novel is the work of ten years—slow going for such a compact novel. I started and stopped numerous times, trying to tell the story the right way. I finished the first draft on Christmas morning of 2016, while everyone else in the household ate breakfast.

 The pre-pub reviews have been excellent. A special shout out to Jean Hastings Ardell for being so generous with her time and her review. Stay tuned…it’s going to be a great season.

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Blunt Advice

hqdefaultYou may have a friend who is plain-spoken to the point of being blunt. Someone straddling the line between honesty and bad manners. Someone uneasy around sensitive people, often responding to a frown with, “Just kidding!”

Some of my favorite writer’s quotes are “blunt.” Whether frank or bitter or both, there’s a blend of economy and acumen in the quotes that follow. (The Hemingway quote, for example, applies directly to my own work. Perhaps he transcended death in order to read my latest work-in-progress…) Enjoy!

“The first draft of everything is shit.” ~Ernest Hemingway

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write. Simple as that.” ~Stephen King

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” ~Oscar Wilde

“Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” ~Kurt Vonnegut

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” ~Elmore Leonard

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” ~W. Somerset Maugham

“When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.” ~Raymond Chandler

“Get comfortable with your day job.” ~Michael Pemental

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Write Your Obsession

FessYou may have heard the advice— “Write about what you know.” I’ve read good arguments on this theme, both pro and con, and have come away with the thought that there’s better advice to be had. My advice is to write what obsesses you.

I’ve started a few books that were stillborn. The plots were clever, and the characters were compelling. The books never jelled. When a project involved a subject or thematic question that I could obsess over, the stories seemed to work.

Obsession is an issue or idea that intrudes and preoccupies your thoughts. Let me give you an example. When I was five years old, I saw Walt Disney’s film, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Fess Parker, who starred as Davy, looked a bit like my father. (Make whatever psychological inferences you will.) At the age of nine, I read Robert Penn Warren’s Remember the Alamo. By then, I was hooked on the Alamo story. I had a Davy Crockett shirt (at the peak of the Disney craze, fully a tenth of all children’s clothing featured Davy Crockett). As an adult, I own nearly every Alamo movie ever filmed, and a shelf full of collector’s editions of key books written on the subject. I’ve published essays, maintain friendships based on a shared fascination, and drink Fess Parker’s Pinot Noir (highly recommended).

When I decided to write a novel, I stuck with a subject I could obsess over. The Breach (Last Knight Publishing, 2002) is the Alamo story, told from the Mexican side of the conflict. Why might obsession be important to the writing process?

  • Writing a novel is a long haul. If you’re obsessed with a subject, you have a better chance of sticking with the process until the novel is finished.
  • Writing that fires your imagination increases the chances that the enthusiasm will end up in the prose.
  • Pitching a novel involves unrelenting rejection. The Breach was turned down 103 times before I found a publisher willing to take a chance. If the book had been less of a crusade, I probably would have given up.
  • Marketing a published novel is tough because selling requires social skills. What makes selling easier for a reclusive writer? An obsession, bordering on the spiritual.

Because every author is different, obsessions are diverse. Instead of a herd of writers chasing market trends, imagine books that distill the sparks animating various topics, translating those sparks into prose.

As for writing about what you know, if you obsess about something long enough, you’ll come to know it by your book’s end…

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PLAYING TAG

elephantAuthentic-sounding dialog is tough. But the presentation of that dialog on the page is also problematic. Common mistakes include simple punctuation, word choices, and tag strategy. Going over a few examples can help make a positive impact in your writing. We’ll start simple and move to complex.

A dialog tag is a small phrase at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence that identifies the speaker. Punctuation is an important part of the process. The comma offsetting the tag sits inside the quotation marks that bracket the dialog:

“I really dislike elephants,” she said.

Placement of the dialog tag is important. If you have a long speech that ends with the tag, that tag is too late to matter:

“My friends all love elephants and think they’re cute. I never understood how mottled, dirty skin could be cute. I think I liked them well enough when I was young, but my uncle took me to the zoo one day, and, well…let’s just say it was a bad experience,” she said.

The great Elmore Leonard (author of “Get Shorty”) famously said, “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.” I agree in principle, but I tend to use asked to tag questions because it reads better:

“What is the big attraction?” she asked.

What Leonard wants to avoid is a thesaurus full of dialog tags that remind the reader they are reading. Said and asked are neutral tags—they don’t interfere with the story because the reader’s eye slides over them. But other tags stick out, and interrupt the reader:

“Elephants are intelligent,” he lectured.

“Then why are they in the zoo?” she queried.

“That is our great shame,” he confided.

A similar problem involves dialog tags that don’t describe the speaking process, like “Hello,” he smiled. At the risk of being picky, people don’t smile words, they say them.

Portraying a conversation can become tedious if “said” anchors every line. There are several solutions to this problem. First, not every line needs a tag. In a conversation between two people, readers are quite able to keep the scorecard straight without constant tags, especially when the speakers have distinct voices:

“You like animals more than people,” she said.

“Actually, I simply adore all living things.”

“Actually? Actually?”

“It’s a word, my dear. It has meaning.”

Add a third person into the conversation, and tags become more important. Luckily, action can be used to tag a conversation. Action tags can be as non-intrusive as the tag said if they’re used correctly:

“You are a pompous ass.” She stood, hands on hips, glaring.

“Not so. But I am empathetic to our friends in the animal kingdom.”

“Elephants are not your friend. They’d crack your head like a peanut.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You are so misguided.”

Notice that the punctuation for an action tag is different. When a separate sentence depicting action replaces a dialog tag, close the actual dialog off with a period, not a comma. The difference looks like this:

“I am not,” she said

vs

“I am not.” She turned away.

Let’s go deeper. Remember that people don’t always speak in complete sentences. They trail off. They interrupt. The ellipses and em dash depict this nicely:

“My father used to say that…” Her eyes misted over.

“Perhaps he had a reason—”

“Yes, he had a reason! He was a jerk!”

The potential for repetition still exists if you limit yourself to simple actions:

“You are quite judgmental.” She scowled.

He shrugged. “I don’t think so. You’re the one who hates elephants.”

She closed her eyes. “I don’t hate them.”

He laughed. “Be honest.”

To avoid the herky-jerk prose of “she scowled/he shrugged,” make your action tags serve a descriptive purpose. Instead of front-loading your scene-setting in a descriptive paragraph that readers skip over anyway, set the scene in the body of the dialog. Put meaningful description directly into the conversation:

“I am honest. I’ve been honest all along,” she said. She stepped back and glanced at the elephant in the pit. The elephant seemed to catch her with sad, black marbles for eyes.

He shoved his hands into his designer jeans, his lower lip jutting. “You can say you’re honest, but what does that even mean?”

She held the elephant’s gaze for a long moment. “It’s a word. It has meaning. Let me demonstrate. Right now, I like that elephant a whole lot more than I like you.”

The groundskeeper passed by, silencing them both. He seemed to be minding his own business, but as he passed her, he shoved a bag of peanuts into her hands. “For you,” he said. His voice was mottled and muddy, though she didn’t seem to mind.

Our discussion of dialog tags and action tags goes beyond the simple admonition to “stick with said.” Experiment with your current project by finding a conversation to edit. Check to see that your commas and periods are in order. Cut some tags. Refine character voices to make them distinct. Make your action tags serve the story. If you can do that, you’ll have greatly improved your writing. Good luck!

 

 

 

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10 Writer’s Quotes of Dubious Inspriational Value

In moments of dark despair, some writers fall back on the wisdom of others who, in years past, trod the lonely path of the artist, yet flourished. And others just like quotes. A warning, though. Writers can be curmudgeons. They can be cruel. Luckily, their quotes, though of questionable motivational worth, can be entertaining:

truman_capote_rose_crop“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” ~Truman Capote

“I’m realizing that everything has been too easy for my characters so far. I think I need to maim one of them.” ~Ross Willard

“It’s splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your imagination and make them pop like chestnuts.” ~Gustave Flaubert

dick_philip_k_WD “Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything.” ~Philip K. Dick

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” ~Flannery O’Connor

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” ~Robert A. Heinlein

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” ~Harper Lee

“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.” ~Erica Jong

“Writing saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence.” ~Alice Walker

“I wrote a few children’s books. Not on purpose.” ~Steven Wright

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Starting Your Story

startsimpleStory openings are daunting. Just starting out can freeze a writer. Like a golf swing, there are so many things to bear in mind:

  • Grab the reader.
  • Introduce the POV protagonist.
  • Initiate character and thematic arcs.
  • Start immediately with the inciting incident.
  • Craft a memorable first line.

These bits of advice (grab the reader is more of a demand) can freeze a writer at the keyboard. At the risk of turning a natural chill to perma-frost, let me add one more bit of advice that might help with the rest. Start simple.

Let me explain with an example from music. When I was in my twenties, I played guitar in several rock bands. A friend (who looked like Bob Denver from Gilligan’s Island and played like Eric Clapton) had the same advice for soloing. “Start simple. Play a few licks they’ve heard before you launch off into your crazy shit. If you give them something fun they can wrap their heads around, they’ll stick with you.” (For non-musicians, a lick is a stock pattern or phrase that catches the ear…a hook.)

I offer this reader-friendly advice for your opening prose. Start simple. Don’t use complicated or cluttered sentences. Don’t be abstract. Don’t be overly poetic. Save your adjective and adverb modifiers for later. Let readers get the rhythm of your prose before you yank them down your dark path.

As an editor, I often see story openings that try to impress with complex poetics, only to slip back into the author’s natural voice. That change of voice is a death knell for a submission.

Instead, focus on your characters and plot. This means that in the hierarchy of imperatives, where you start your story is more important than how you start. When you revise, ask yourself the question would-be time travelers ask: What would I change if I knew then what I know now?  Writing a novel? You started months or years ago. Luckily, authors can go back in time, knowing full well how things turned out.

In fact, your story’s opening may just be the last thing you write before finishing the novel. And when you revisit that opening, my advice still holds true. Start simple. Let the story unfold—you have miles of pages to go before the end.

Interested in some inspiration? Visit the following website, which opening lines thought to be the best in the history of literature:                http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp

Some of these classic lines don’t follow my advice. Can you spot which ones?

 

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Kill Your Adverbs

AdverbsStephen King said, “I believe the road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” But the pesky devils sneak into your fiction—pull out any work-in-progress and there they are, lurking.

According to author Beth Ann Erickson, schools are still teaching adverbs as a noble and honorable part of sentence structure. “Just before school finished for the year, my son came home from his sixth-grade class with a homework assignment involving adverbs. I’ve never seen so many ly words in my life!”

Invoking shame (bad adverbs!) will not undo the damage of a good public education. Perhaps an explanation of why adverbs are verboten is in order.

We live in a fast-paced world, and the day of the slow read (which coincided, by the way, with authors who were paid by the word) is over. Readers want to “get to the meat,” and adverbs are filler.

Consider, “He skipped merrily.” How do you skip morosely? Don’t waste your reader’s time adding an adverb to a verb that means the same thing. If you write, “she trudged slowly through the field,” it will force your reader to do the same thing with your prose.

Adverbs can support weak verbs, but if a verb is weak, why subject your reader to it? Lazy writers use easy verbs and then try to pin down meaning with an adverb. Work for the right verb instead.

Adverbs “hedge” the truth. “The man nearly died” makes no sense in terms of either life or death. The observation that “he apparently failed” doesn’t address failure, it addresses appearances of failure. “He probably lied” hides an accusation behind a modifier. Writing is about honesty, and adverbs can shift your prose away from the truth.

Worst of all, adverbs don’t “show,” they “tell.” Active, well-chosen verbs “show.” Which of the following is more active, more immediate? “She smiled crazily,” or “She smiled, her mouth open and wet, her eyes wide, gazing at, or rather, through him.” Instead of noting the white-knuckle grip of a man on the arms of his chair, or observing the way he squeaks the vinyl when he shifts in his seat, adverbs tell us that the man is “sitting nervously.”

Armed now with good reasons, and your desire to create readable fiction, go forth and kill your adverbs. Erase them, delete them.

Quickly, now.

 

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It Wasn’t

“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

dickens_portrait_1861_lgAll respects to Charles Dickens, who wrote great, sprawling novels that have lasted generations. But his use of “it”  in this famous passage drives me crazy. Pronouns stand in for noun phrases, and refer to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the writing. Any possible confusion is supposed to be mitigated by using the pronoun to represent the most recently mentioned noun. But pronouns muddling is common. For example, if two women are talking, which “she” does the writer mean? A skillful passage will drop names or use action to keep pronouns clear.

But “it,” the indefinite pronoun, takes the confusion to a whole new level. Writers often use phrases like “It couldn’t be worse” to refer to an unspoken situation just described (as being bad) but not named. The pronoun hangs out there with no visible attachment.

Or, “it” may be self-referencing, as in “It was a sunny day.” In unpacking the meaning, we discover that “The sunny day was a sunny day.”

Multiple uses of the indefinite pronoun invariably lead to “its” that refer to different things. And “it” easily pairs with passive, to-be verbs (“it was” is a common offender). Take a moment to revisit the famous Dickens passage and ask the question, “What does it refer to?”

Yet, you’ll see “it” in most published works (including some of mine). The indefinite pronoun is easy to use. I leave “it” alone in dialog—people talk that way—but I find that when replacing “it” in non-dialog prose, I’m forced to come up with clear subjects and active verbs, which improves the writing.

So, cut “it” out.

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