WRITING: “If Only I Could Find The Time…”

One of the most annoying statements people make when they hear I’m a writer, is that they’ll shake their heads and say, “I’d love to write a novel, if only I could find the time.”

To most writers, this is a seriously demeaning statement, because most of us have 24 hours in a day, juggling our work, private life, responsibilities and social activities, and yet we authors are able to find our time to write.

I’ve written several novels and short stories and I’ve had people asking me, where do you find the time to write? And I tell them, wherever I can:

  • I worked night shifts as a security officer, filling the bulk of my shifts with writing.
  • I rarely watch live television, but I pre-program my television to record what I want to see, so that I can fast-forward through commercial blocks (a two-hour movie on television contains some 30-40 minutes of commercials!).
  • I write on an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard that I take everywhere, so I can write in waiting rooms and playgrounds (where my children are running around).
  • I turn my manuscripts into e-books that I can edit on my e-reader while I’m waiting in queues at the supermarket or during rides in public transport.
  • I get up an hour before the rest of the family wakes up, so I can cram in some writing before breakfast.

And I don’t mess around when I’m writing:

  • I write in drafts so that I finish a draft before I start editing. Writing and editing require different mindsets – I used to edit while I wrote, but I don’t do that anymore, because my inner editor will stifle my creative mind. And if you spend time editing on a scene that you’ll cut anyone is wasted time.
  • I don’t worry about beginnings, endings, chapter length, opening sentences, character names, or if the right words don’t come to mind (I write the closest word and add a @, so I can find the word again when I’m editing). Most of that stuff will be decided on in the editing process. My first rough draft is not to be read by anyone but myself.
  • Formatting, like smart quotes, bold, italics, chapter names, et cetera, is decided in the late editing stage, when the story is shaping into a manuscript.

The most important thing is that rough draft. Get that story out of your mind and onto a paper or screen, so you can look at what was in your head. Two hours movies often have several hours of deleted scenes that never made the movie. A sixty minute album of music will require a week of studio time. A novel you can read in eight hours was created in twelve months from a manuscript that might take twenty-four hours to read.

When you get better at filming, you will become more efficient. You won’t need to shoot eight hours of film to produce a two-hour movie. You won’t need weeks to produce sixty minutes of music. And you won’t need to re-write your draft six times to produce a polished manuscript. With practice, you become more efficient.

Don’t fritter your time away – do something constructive and write that draft. You can thank me later.

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WRITING: For the Curious: My Writing Workstation…

As there are always writers and fans who are curious about the work methods and gear of authors, I decided to show off my workstation.

Warning: this article has a high ‘gearhead’ ratio, so proceed at your own risk.

An Overview:

This is my workstation when I write at home, i.e. my stationary station. I also have a set-up for ‘on-the-go’ (which can be briefly seen here), but I’ll come back to that in another article.

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My seat of creativity… (photo by Martyn V. Halm)

When I write at home, I sit in the living room, street side. My living room doubles as a dojo (and a playroom for the kids), which explains the sword rack and the judo mats on the floor… In the picture, the curtain is down, but during the day I often have the curtain raised to let the sun in. The lower parts of the window are frosted so people won’t be able to see inside (and I don’t spend my valuable writing time gazing outside).

The Throne:

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The Throne: Stokke Gravity Balance with black leather upholstering. (photo by Martyn V. Halm)

My throne is a vintage Stokke Gravity Balance (currently manufactured by Varier). I fell in love with this chair when it first came out in 1987, but it was always hideously expensive. I bought this Stokke chair secondhand for four hundred euro. That might sound like a lot of money for a secondhand chair, but these chairs are built to last. The 2014 price for a Varier Gravity Balance with black leather upholstering starts at twenty-three hundred euro, so four hundred euro is a bargain. The leather was faded, but I managed to get it black and shiny again.

The Stokke Gravity Balance has four seating positions:

When writing, I rest my knees on the two lower pads (with my feet tucked under the seat) and the wooden curves rest on the ground, so the seat is tilted forward. This is an active seating position that fosters a tilted pelvis and a straightened spine.

When researching/reading/watching films, the seat will be in the neutral position (like in the picture). In this position, my feet are often between the two pads or on the left pad.

Listening to music, I lean back into the reclining position and put my calves on the knee pads. In this position I often sit while thinking up new scenes for my books.

Finally, I can push off and tilt all the way back into the ‘zero gravity‘ position. This fully reclining position can be used for napping. The legs, on the knee pads, are elevated above the torso, so the blood flows down to the abdomen.

My Laptop Table:

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The Platform (Photo by Martyn V. Halm)

My 15” MacBook Pro rests on a Lounge-Tek book table. The laptop platform can be tilted and swivel 360 degrees, and is fixed with an angled rod to the main post. On top of the main post is a smaller flat platform where I often place the covers of DVDs and CDs. The height adjustable post stands on two angled feet with hard plastic feet. The sturdy Lounge-Tek table is light enough to push and pull, but stable enough not to drop collapse with my expensive stuff on it. I’ve had this table for a couple of years now (it can easily used in beds or with couches that have a small gap where the feet slide under).

The Soundtrack Equipment:

I always play music when I’m creating.

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Up until a month ago, I used a Grado SR60i headphone, which functions pretty good with the iPad, but only pretty well with the MacBook and just adequate with my stereo. Since Grado has updated its line of headphones, I could get a sweet deal on a Grado SR325iS, which is a giant leap from the 60, but also a bit harder to drive. Hence the FiiO E10K Amp/DAC. So what does the FiiO do? While the signal from the headphone socket of the MacBook is pretty good, the E10K’s Digital to Analogue Converter connects to the USB port, where it both draws its power and converts the digital iTunes signal to analogue (sound) using an external sound card that is quite a lot better than the internal sound card of the MacBook. On top of that, the FiiO has a pretty powerful amp that can power 16-150 Ohm impedance headphones. As the SR325iS is 32 Ohm, the FiiO has no problem enhancing and amplifying the iTunes signal to near Compact Disc quality for the headphones. The E10K also has a Bass Boost switch and a low/high gain switch, as well as an analog and digital line-out. The headphone jack is coupled to the potentiometer to adjust the volume. To protect and store these high-end headphones I found a Sennheiser HH10 padded headphone support that clamps onto the laptop platform.

The Supporting Cast:

Of course I have other gear that doesn’t belong on the laptop platform, but still has to be within reach.

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The Supporting Cast (Photo by Martyn V. Halm)

From Left to Right: Seagate 1TB hard drive for back-ups, Klean Kanteen water bottle, remotes for when I listen to my stereo instead of my MacBook, my trusty iPad2 with bluetooth ZAGGkeys ProPlus keyboard for writing ‘on-the-go’, Samsung mobile phone, magnifier, reading glasses, pen, Kindle e-reader.

The Book Shelf:

Every writer has reference works.

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Reference Works (Photo by Martyn V. Halm)

These are non-fiction books on a variety of topics like crime, weapons, and psychology; and reference books on writing, medical terminology, grammar and proper usage.

That concludes the tour. If you feel like supporting me and help me to keep writing and publishing, head on over to the main page for links to the retailers that sell the Amsterdam Assassin Series.

Please comment if you want to discuss my set-up or your own.


OPINION: Verisimilitude in Fiction, Redux.

As I mentioned in this article, I’m a stickler for verisimilitude. I found some discussion on the lack of realism in fiction, which is not the issue:

What many people are looking for in fiction is verisimilitude: the story has to ‘ring true’. Actions have to be believable. Behaviour has to be consistent. Actions need to have consequences.

It’s not the same as realism, as reality will have unbelievable action, inconsistent behaviour, and the consequences of actions are sometimes completely lacking or not in relation to the action.

Verisimilitude—like justice and honesty—is an idealistic concept: we think we know what the truth is, just as we think we know what justice is and think ourselves to be honest. However, truth is different for anyone; justice is an ideal that is rarely found in real life; and if you’re honest 24/7, you will be severely lonely.

Truth is relative, which is why it can be applied to fiction. If the author poses a kind of truth that is supported by the story, the reader will suspend their disbelief, trusting the author to deliver on their promise.

If the author fails to support the truth they pose, the story will become ‘unbelievable’ and reviewers will say the book isn’t ‘realistic’. That’s not the case: the author just didn’t manage to support the truths they posed in the story.

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OPINION: The Need for Champions

If you ask authors to list what they dread the most it’s having to sell themselves and their books. Apparently, self-promotion remains one of the most daunting tasks of the whole process, especially for self-publishing authors and trade-published midlist authors.

Even though most people understand the creative accomplishment of writing a book, authors who toil for months and sometimes years to craft a novel are often reticent about spreading the word that their work is available. Not because they don’t want to, but because they are afraid of the backlash of self-promotion.

When we were children, we’d stand up and proudly show the drawing we made or the castle we built and bask unselfconsciously in the admiration and adulation of our parents and teachers.

But when we grow older, many of us are discouraged to speak of our accomplishments. There’s an element of crassness and arrogance associated with self-promotion. We are expected to be humble and wait for people to ask what we do, and when we speak about our novels, we are encouraged to do so with humility and self-deprecation, so people know that we’re not arrogantly thumping our chests over our accomplishments.

How can you tell people that you’ve written and published a novel or even a series without embarrassment?

With the proliferation of self-publishing through Amazon the current offering in reading material is astoundingly high in volume and ironically low in quality. A recent census revealed that 80% of the people living in the U.S. want to write a book. Sadly, not everyone who wants to do something truly excels at their endeavours, so there are a lot of books flooding the market that are not really worth a reader’s attention.

Many readers are turned off by the glut of badly written self-published books that beg their attention. As a result, readers will not listen to authors promoting their books, but they will turn to other ways of deciding what books to read.

One of the most influential factors in choosing a novel to read is when books come recommended. Preferably by friends, because recommendations carry more weight if delivered by someone trusted for their good judgment.

Many readers are unaware of how important recommendations are, especially for beginning authors who rely on the word-to-mouth to build their readership.

Although this counts doubly for self-published authors–who don’t have a publicist or a publisher to coordinate their marketing efforts–even trade-published midlist authors are pretty much left to their own devices.

So how can readers help their favourite authors?

Be their Champion.

If you meet someone who might enjoy the same books you enjoy, tell them about your favourite authors. Write about the books you read on GoodReads. Leave reviews on retailer websites. Like your favourite author on Facebook. Pin their covers on Pinterest. Follow their blogs. Apply for Advanced Reader Copies of their books. Start or join a fan club.

What do you think? Please comment, and let me know I’m not just talking to the void. If you have ideas to increase word-of-mouth, don’t hesitate to share!


REVIEW: Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

Falling AngelFalling Angel by William Hjortsberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If a mystery gets mixed with the occult or the supernatural, the result is often disastrous for the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Falling Angel is an exception to the rule.

Struggling private investigator Harry Angel is hired by a foreign client, Louis Cyphre, to find Johnny Favorite, a crooner from before the war. Favorite is supposed to stay at a private hospital in upstate New York, where he is treated for ‘shell shock’ sustained in the war, but when Cyphre tries to visit him he gets the runaround.
Angel visits the private hospital, only to learn that Favorite was transferred to the VA hospital in Albany in 1945. The transfer is bogus, but the person responsible turns up dead, so Angel has to dig in Favorite’s past in order to track him down.
Favorite used to hang out with an eclectic crowd—fortune tellers, musicians, voodoo priestesses and occultists—and Angel’s search takes him from the heights of the Upper West Side to the depths of Harlem.
The missing person case turns sour when it looks like Favorite is desperately trying not to be found; desperate enough to kill anyone who might know where to find him.
Angel follows, descending deeper and deeper into Favorite’s sordid past, only to end up knee-deep in corpses and to find his own past connected to Favorite’s in the most unusual fashion.

Not only are all the characters in this mystery finely drawn, the dialogue is quirky and surprising and the Faustian ending brings the mystery to a satisfying conclusion.

This novel was also filmed as Angel Heart, with Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel and Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre.

View all my reviews


REVIEW: Miami Blues by Charles Willeford

Miami BluesMiami Blues by Charles Willeford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. The quirky characters, the weird situations, the interaction. Junior Frenger, a freeloading sociopath recently released from prison, arrives in Miami, where he uses his skills at deception and violence to twist situations into his advantage.
Weary police detective Hoke Moseley investigates the carnage in Frenger’s wake and falls victim himself, which leads to hilarious situations.

Strongly recommended to fans of Elmore Leonard and noir crime novels.

View all my reviews


WRITING: ‘What the hell is a blurb?’ or pitching your book

From a discussion on writing blurbs (also known as the pitch), I’d like to share some of my ideas on a ‘formula’ for writing a pitch.

The difficulty with writing a pitch is that most novelist have trouble figuring out how to ‘sell’ their book. I’m taking the blurb of my novel Reprobate as an example on how write a pitch:

First things first, the blurb is not a synopsis of the book, but the blurb has to provide incentive for the reader to read the book.

What is also useful if you write the blurb like a pitch, with three different stages:

Stage one, the elevator pitch: Describe your book in one sentence, preferably less than could be spoken in one short breath. For example: Hungry white shark terrorizes beach community. Lone undercover cop battles terrorists in highrise office building.

Stage two, the story pitch: Try to tell, as succinctly as possible, what happens in the first part of the book that sets up what will happen next.

Stage three, the promise: This book is X genre and part of a series. The author is a gynecologist and therefore qualified to write about this subject. This book is highly recommended for easily excitable readers with short attention spans.

If your three stages work well, the first stage poses a question that is answered in the second stage with another question that is explained in the third stage.

My ABNA pitch (in 2010) for Reprobate was:

REPROBATE is the first novel in a series featuring female commercial assassin Katla Sieltjes, a specialist in making homicide appear as ‘deaths without suspicious circumstances’. The setting of the story is the Netherlands, in particular Amsterdam.

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience Katla Sieltjes views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her alias Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with principals through electronic means, all to protect her identity.

Resigned to remain single for the duration of her career Katla meets the enigmatic blind musician Bram Merleyn when he enters the gallery where Katla has just killed the owner. Deciding that the blind man won’t make a reliable witness, Katla spares his life. After stalking the blind man to gain information whether he is truly harmless, an opportunity presents itself for a new introduction and Katla becomes intimate with Bram who is unaware of her real occupation. While the relationship between Bram and Katla blossoms and starts to affect both their lives, the suspense mounts to exciting heights as Katla accepts a difficult high-risk assignment from an unreliable principal – not only her possible exposition and fragile relationship with Bram are at stake, but her very life is in peril as Katla scrambles to get back to zero.

Through the developing romance between Katla and Bram, and their interaction with a supporting cast of unusual characters, the reader gains insight in the business of a commercial assassin as well as detailed knowledge about the life of session musicians; local information about the famous Dutch capital; the narcotics trade; motorcycle gangs; mehndi bridal tattoos; martial arts; and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The strength of REPROBATE lies in authentic details and psychological depth of the characters, mixed with fast-paced action and a realistic plot.

My final description for Reprobate follows my formula, but uses text from the pitch:

Assassin Katla breaks her own rules when confronted with an unusual witness…

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, computer hacking, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, the psychology of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

This e-book features a glossary.

You can see the repeated elements. And it’s a lot shorter, because pitches to agents are 150 words max, while ABNA pitches are (were?) 300 words max.

Analyzing your pitch/blurb:

Take the first part of the blurb from Reprobate:

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

If you analyze this blurb, you see:
Who is the protagonist? Freelance assassin Katla Sieltjes, who considers herself ‘blessed’ by being unburdened by a conscience. So she kills without remorse, which is not a common trait in a protagonist.
What does the protagonist do (what is the status quo? She lives a solitary life, apparently enjoys killing for profit, and takes great pains to remain anonymous
What is the conflict that changes the status quo? A blind man walks into her crime scene, and Katla breaks her own rules and spares his life. And Katla becomes dissatisfied with her solitary existence.

That ‘conflict’ happens in the first of fifty chapters. So, you don’t need to ‘tell the whole story’. Just give a reader enough that they may think, ‘hey, this might be interesting’.

The second part of the blurb is:

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, computer hacking, the art of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The second part is the ‘promise’. What can the reader expect? The first book in a series (so if they like it, there is more), the heroine is unusual (a remorseless killer is often the antagonist, but rarely the protagonist), and she’s not the only unusual character.
Amsterdam is famous all over the world, but the blurb offers a rare glimpse in the local culture and information on a host of other topics, which may or may not be unknown/interesting to the reader. And it contains brutal violence (so the reader won’t think it’s chick-lit and complain about the violent bits).

What the blurb doesn’t do is tell what happens after Katla breaks her rule. Breaking rules is always a risk, and the reader can figure out that there’ll be consequences. Only, to know the consequences, they’ll have to read the book.

If you apply the analysis to your own blurb, see if you can figure out what you’re telling and what not.

Other articles on writing blurbs:

Four Easy Steps to an Irresistible Book Blurb.

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