Friday, June 29, 2018

Writing: What's In A Name?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Actually, that's a paraphrase of the lines some guy named William Shakespeare (a pretty good writer) penned several hundred years ago. The actual words, from the play Romeo and Juliet, go like this. "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet." But you get the picture. Whether Romeo's last name is Montague or Juliet a Capulet, the two individuals love each other. It doesn't matter what they are called, with all the history that goes with it.

If that phrase is accurate, and words don't really matter, why doesn't a writer just pick names willy-nilly for his/her characters? Actually, it appears that some do, but the thoughtful writer doesn't. Instead, there are some things we try to consider (or at least should).

We should avoid having two or three characters with easily confused names. We go to great lengths to describe them so the reader can identify them, but then we fail to separate the names. Was that Robert or Richard who's the weak brother? Was the best friend Julie or Jane? And remind me again what part Derek plays...or was it David? I try never to have two major (or even significant minor) characters whose first name starts with the same initial. I don't always succeed, but I try.

One of my favorite authors, Donald Westlake, gives a female character (who starts out an "extra" but pretty soon plays a major role) the first name of Chloe. She's described as dark, attractive, hard to get a handle on, a woman of mystery. And somehow, that name seems to fit her. Not every name calls forth a picture, but it's great when that happy situation occurs. Can you form a mental picture when Robert B. Parker refers to Spenser's friend, Hawk?  His name fits the character he plays--ebony complexion, shaved head, slightly larger than life, controlled emotion beneath a calm exterior. The name just fits him.

So, even though a rose would smell as sweet by any other name, we've gotten used to the mental picture a rose conjures up, and would be quite surprised if we sniffed one and smelled a different odor. Better to stick to names with which the reader can identify.

What's your favorite character name, and why? I'd like to know.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Transient Glory

Sic transit gloria mundi is a Latin phrase that means "Thus passes the glory of the world". I was reminded of it recently when I looked at the cover of a paperback novel I bought years ago. It was by one of my favorite authors, one who'd won numerous awards for his fiction. The book has been marked down to nineteen cents! Sic transit gloria mundi.

In writing, we wonder how many people we touch. The average number of books read per year is 12, but that number is probably inflated by inclusion of people who read a lot. The number most often quoted is 4 per year--and I wonder if even that's not too high. Yet we keep writing, hoping to touch just a few, if not many.

We all affect people, some positively, some negatively. But few of us ever pause to consider the effect we have on those who look at us--at our work product, at our lives, at the way we behave. You don't have to preach from a pulpit or send forth the written word. Our lives tell a story every day. We need to remember that.

I used to throw prospective residents for a loop when interviewing them by asking the question, "What would you like your epitaph to be?" What I was really asking was "What do you want to be remembered for?" Some people spend their life making money, some strive for professional advancement, others just want to make it through another day. But stop and think. What would you like to be remembered for? How are you impacting other lives? 

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Writing: Waiting For The Next Step

A comment on social media by a friend and colleague who had just completed her last contracted novel and was at loose ends led me a blog post I had written in the past about this. I think it's still appropriate today.

God made a promise to an old and childless Abraham that someday he would be the father of many nations. Fourteen years after that, Isaac was born to Abraham and his wife, Sarah. Did you ever wonder what happened during the prolonged period of waiting the patriarch endured? Did Abraham worry because he was getting older by the day without the son God promised? Did he agonize, wondering if perhaps God had forgotten His covenant? Did he consider trying other gods, hoping they’d do better a better job for him? We may not know what Abraham did during this period, but whatever it was, it’s evident he never lost faith.
What would a writer do if subjected to such a prolonged silence? Would the unpublished writer keep trying despite rejection after rejection? Would the previously published writer persevere when there were no more contracts? Would indie-publishing be the next step, even though it was uncharted territory? We’ve all felt it—the urge to throw up our hands and quit. Should we do that, or, like Abraham, should we keep the faith?
Like other writers, I have endured some of those silent periods, and I have to confess that during those times I worried...a lot. I wrote for four years before finally getting my first contract. I was ready to give up many times before then, and once I actually quit, although God had other plans. After that contract, I thought things would go more smoothly. Wrong. Despite several published novels, I endured a silent period again, waiting for a publisher to want my work. When there were no phone calls, no email messages, I wondered if perhaps the call to writing I imagined feeling wasn’t real.
Finally, when I received another contract, I learned there was to be a hiatus of a year and a half between the publication of my last book and the appearance of the next one.  Although I worried that no one would remember me after such a prolonged absence, the void period turned out to be just what I needed. During that time when I wasn’t writing under deadline, I was able to devote myself to other things. I could be there for my family. I was free to study and read. In other words, the timing of that silent period was perfect. It was God’s timing.
When you encounter periods of silence like these, remember that they may represent an example of this perfect timing. If you are overcome with worry during such a period, think about Abraham. He never lost faith. We shouldn’t either. 
You may not be a writer, waiting for a contract. But whatever you feel is your next step, when you're waiting for the next shoe to drop, what is your reaction? I'd like to hear it.
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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Thinking

When I was practicing medicine, I was in solo private practice for most of my professional life. Then I accepted a position as a professor at a prestigious medical center, where I served for another decade. The advice I received from a good friend (now deceased)  resonated with me at the time, and comes back periodically: "Are you ready to work for 'the man'?" I thought I'd learned how to work for someone else in my almost three years in the Air Force, but I soon remembered why it isn't an unalloyed blessing.

When I was in solo practice, both the upside and downside to that situation was that I was responsible for making all the decisions. It was no fun to see the pay period coming up and know that I'd be the last one to get a check...if I got one at all. But it was a nice feeling to know that if I wanted to leave early to see my son's baseball game or swim meet, or my daughter's speech tournament, I could. On balance, it probably was the weight of being the one making the ultimate decisions that led me to accept the invitation to "work for the man."

I had a good decade at the medical center, with patient responsibility, surgical cases, and teaching duties. But I soon learned that having someone else in charge was a high price to pay. The straw that broke this particular camel's back was when I wanted to buy a new copy of a book most physicians use on a regular basis. The cost was about $25, as I recall. The administrator turned down my request, saying that I could use the copy one of my colleagues had bought. I had been recognized throughout the world for my expertise, had been president of one and vice-president of two of our professional organizations, had served on a number of commissions and committees, and was turned down for a $25 book. I decided to retire.

I have a similar situation in writing. When I was under contract to a publisher, they handled a lot of things I've discovered are the indie-author's responsibility. Royalty structure aside, I have to ask myself if it's worth it to be in charge of getting everything done. This is not a new argument, nor is it confined to my "new" profession. Each of us has to assess whether it's worth the security of having someone else in charge to relinquish our ability to fully control the situation. I'll reach a personal decision soon, but I suspect the question will come up again.

How about you? What's your opinion in this situation? Do you have a similar one in your own life? I'd like to hear.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Writing: Decisions

Since starting to publish my novels without the help of a traditional publisher, I've learned how many of the decisions regarding a book's publication are up to the author--decisions that he/she often took for granted that the publisher would make.

For instance, the publisher chose an editor for my work. This could be a good or bad thing. Going in, I thought the same editor who accepted my novel would be the one who did the editing. That was before I found out that there's a macro-edit, a line edit, proof-reading, and (depending on how you break it up), perhaps more. It's frankly a gamble when someone else chooses your editor (and I've both won and lost this gamble). And just about the time you get the right person involved, for one reason or another the author is no longer with that publisher...or editor. Now, all that is a decision that must be made by the author. The result can be good or bad, but the decision in this case is mine, and I've settled on a good one.

Likewise, the publisher chose the artist who would craft the cover for a book. I've been fortunate in that I was consulted much of the time, and the covers for my books that were released by traditional publishers have been good. I remember completing rather complex questionnaires prior to a cover that gave the physical descriptions of major characters, as well as suggested scenes that might be used. When the book is indie-published, it's up to the author to find the right artist, give all the appropriate information to them, and make certain the end result is a cover with which you're happy. Again, I've successfully navigated this challenge.

Then there's the question of size of the book, matte or glossy cover, font to be used on the cover and in the body of the text, and on and on it goes. Should it be released in e-book or print or both? When should it be released? Is a pre-order period a good or bad thing?

For good or ill, I'm ready to release my next novel, Guarded Prognosis. It's available for pre-order (at a discount for the Kindle version until the official release date of July 17). I hope you enjoy it.

Oh, and an indie author (actually, all authors), should make all those decisions I've described above as well as writing the next one. I plan to release my novella, Emergency Call, in late November. Keep that in mind when making your Christmas shopping list.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Envy

Ever find yourself comparing your life with someone else's--and wishing yours were different? Writers are especially prone to this. We see a post about another writer's success, and (at least for a moment) some of us turn green.

I used to envy other authors, but the more I got to know some of them, the more I found out they had their own problems--you'd be surprised how many. The same holds true of people in almost every walk of life. The old Indian saying has a lot of truth in it: "Don't judge another until you've walked a mile in their moccasins." (Of course, one of my friends adds, "By then you're a mile away from them and you have their shoes.")

One of the quotations I like best is this one from Steven Furtick, a pastor in North Carolina: "The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel." Think about that the next time you get upset after reading someone's post on social media or receive a Christmas letter that sends you running for the headache remedy.

Don't get frustrated by seeing what someone else has. Maybe you're just seeing their highlight reel.

Let me know in the comments what you think about this. Although Blogger is having some problems, and I don't currently get notified of comments, I'll get around to them eventually.

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Friday, June 08, 2018

Writing: My Next Novel

People who have never written a book say, "I wish I could do that." People who have actually done it look at their manuscript and say, "I wish I could get it published." People who hold their first book in their hands say, "I did it." The next noise these people hear is the sound of agents, publishers, and readers saying, "When's the next one?" Add to that the challenges that await the author who decides to go the "indie-route" and you have my current situation.

When I became a hybrid author, one who has been published by a traditional pub house but decides for one reason or another to self-publish, I found a number of surprises waiting. But whether indie- or traditionally-published, one thing is universal among writers--an emotion experienced by first-time authors and someone (like me) who has seen multiple books with their name on the cover: the release date is always accompanied by some nervousness.

I've sent out almost a dozen copies of the e-book format of my next novel, Guarded Prognosis, for review. When I started seeing some nice postings about the book on Goodreads and getting emails directed to me saying they liked it, I breathed a sigh of relief. And now it's time for the general public to chime in.

We've made the Kindle version of the book available for pre-order (at about 40% off until release on July 17, at which time it goes up to the final price). I'm told that Amazon won't put the print version up for pre-order yet. However, on July 17, both the Kindle and print versions will be available via Amazon. And lest you say, "I don't have a Kindle," there are apps available--free of charge on Amazon--that let you download and read these books on Macs. (Currently the Kindle for PC is "unavailable"--don't know why).

One other thing a writer learns to expect is the question, "When's the next one?" I hope to release a novella this winter--Emergency Call--that features a physician who backs out of her snow-covered drive and runs over the corpse of a man her attorney-husband just defended. Watch for it. And meanwhile, I hope you read and enjoy Guarded Prognosis.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2018

June is Bustin' Out All Over...

Or, at least that's what the musical says. Somehow, June has sneaked up on us. Our weather here in Texas has apparently decided to go straight to summer, and the temperatures lately have been more typical of August than the end of May.

This is the month school is "finally" out. The sounds you hear are cheers from the children and subdued sobbing from the parents who are frantically planning what they can do to keep their kids occupied until school starts again.

Graduation for many high schools takes place in late May or early June. I had occasion to attend one this past weekend, and couldn't help thinking about the emotions going through the heads of those who are receiving their diplomas. Some are going directly to the workforce, some have committed to our armed forces, many are headed for college. I've been through that, both myself and as a parent, and I can only say to each of them--Godspeed.

This summer, my wife will be doing some grandmothering, I'm getting ready to release my next novel (it hardly seems like this will be my sixteenth), and our extended family is about to head out on various vacations. What does your summer look like?

Friday, June 01, 2018

Writing: Does It Matter Where?

A recent post about J. K. Rowling donating the chair in which she did her writing made me think about writing space and whether it matters where an author composes his/her work.

When I retired from medicine, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted an "office" in my home. Not only could I write there, but it would also be a place where I paid bills, did correspondence, and "retreated" to avoid bugging my wife. I'll have to admit that I'm not an author who would make James Scott Bell proud, since I don't set a quota for my daily writing. I've gotten a lot from Jim's books and lectures, but that's one of his rules I've never managed to put into practice. Then again, I've never missed a publication deadline or failed to finish a book on time, so my philosophy of "whatever works" seems to be holding up fine.

Some authors make a habit of writing at a neighborhood coffee shop--usually Starbucks. I know a number of them who say they're unable to write without their laptop at their favorite table, while they sip a grande latte made with a double shot of Kenyan blend, soy milk, and sugar in the raw.  Since I rarely drink coffee except what is brewed at our house, I'll probably never know.  I do know that some of my colleagues enjoy writing on laptops, because they prefer to write at their favorite coffee house or in various rooms (often more than one) in their home. Again, I'll simply say, "Whatever works."

Do you think it matters where a writer crafts his/her books? When you try to type the great American novel, do you look around you for inspiration, or do you prefer silence? Let me know. Meanwhile, I suppose I'll stick with my little office. It's so small the mice are hunch-backed, but it works for me.

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NOTE: For those of you who follow my "author page" on Facebook, I'm going to take a "sort of" vacation during the month of June. I'll be cutting down the number of posts there, including no posts on weekends. Enjoy the summer.