Friday, December 28, 2007


“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it--namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The irony and humor of Mark Twain’s passage aside--a world where people covet what they don’t have, and can't easily get, is not hollow?--this passage spotlights a necessary ingredient for character study: motivation.

In her recent article, “We have ways of MAKING YOU TALK” (The Writer, January 2008), Lois J. Peterson says that what a character really wants, his motivation, is “… a plot element as much as a characterization one … If he is pursuing something as specific as a new watch, a job or a trophy, identify the bigger need it represents.”

For example: Once hurt over a snide remark on his intelligence, little George seeks identification and importance. In order to achieve this, he works hard and pushes through college, becoming a lawyer, only to find that the law degree lands him in a firm where he spends the first year writing legal briefs and wading through countless hours of spell checking and the onerous task of searching for the correct placement of every comma and period. His name is not on the company letterhead. His office is a cubicle. Most of the partners don’t even know he exists. He looks for the right car, the perfect house, the snazzy suits, material things that symbolize his intangible goals. Even with all of the possessions, though, he still can’t find the respect of peers who are only interested in themselves. Identification and importance, he discovers, can’t be bought; they are not for sale. But that doesn’t stop him from trying. George will spend his whole life searching for the next thing that will hopefully give him what he truly wants.

Truth be told, there are probably several motivators in our lives, some of which may lie on opposite sides of the fence. A man wants to be seen as a man. Hunting symbolizes that need. But his wife is adamant that she doesn’t want any guns in the house. Think of the children. Growing up with a need to please others, a sad bi-product of intolerant parents, he suppresses his need in order to make peace in the house, which in turn leads to a frustrated life--especially when he listens to a co-worker’s hunting stories, and then wonders why he can’t have the best of both worlds.

We are all striving for something in our lives, and the characters in a novel, or short story, can’t do anything less. One dimensional characters are boring. The reader can’t relate to who they are or what they want. As such, a writer needs to think long and hard about what her character wants. Where did the need start? Why is it so important? To what lengths will the character go to attain the goal? These are questions that must be asked and answered, and then played out over the course of the story. The reader demands it. The story demands it. After all, they have needs too.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


The whole time I pushed myself through college, working by day and schooling by night, I don’t recall ever hearing the dirty little secret about the accounting profession. If you work in public accounting, your life is not your own during the first quarter of the year as everyone comes begging and pleading to make their tax return as tolerable as possible. If you’re in corporate accounting, the same premise holds true during the last two months and first couple months of the year. It is during this time that end of the year financials need completed, external audits endured, and budgets finalized.

Pulling down a “paying” job while trying to advance a writing career can be challenging, especially during the accounting crunch time when the job demands those precious excess hours that were specifically carved out … to write. But, as I have learned while working in this industry for ten-plus years now, it is what it is; it won’t change, and there is no use crying about it--at least not too much.

There is good news, though. My stories have a couple of months to sit and percolate. When I do revisit them, I can truly approach them with fresh eyes and see the flaws. Last month, I finished a nice crime story for the Holiday Story Exchange. Since starting it, I have had three separate writers critique it, each offering good advice. Next month, after I wade through all the accounting demands on my life, I plan to sit down and re-work the story and submit it. While I’m at it, I’ll brush up a Western Crime story that I submitted to the Tony Hillerman Mystery Contest, which obviously didn’t make it, and I’ll wrap up a third crime story that has been seen a first draft and several revisions. And even though my day job pulls down my resources, I can still read (which now takes between two and three weeks to finish a novel) and submit small posts such as this to my blog.

While I’m at it, here is an excerpt from my Western Crime story. I hope you like it.

From “Meant To Be”:

Sheriff Tom Harper squatted down at the base of a towering ponderosa and studied the sign, picturing in his mind how the scene might have played out. Above him, the body of Jeremiah Winters swayed in the cool breeze that carried the scent of a late autumn rain down the ridge toward Deerhead Canyon. The taut rope creaked with each subtle sweep of the dead rancher. Across the mountain slope, evergreens and aspens whispered their secrets in the wind, and Tom wished for a fleeting moment that he could speak their language, hear what they had to say. As it was, only the impressionable soil offered to tell its side of the story.

Twenty yards down Deputy Ethan Meade reigned up on his sorrel next to two men huddled at the edge of the trail--the same two who discovered the body earlier in the morning. Henry and Jesse Alton. They came to Cloudcroft a few years back to help drive the railroad up through the mountain pass; after the work was completed, they decided to stay. Henry said he liked the atmosphere.

Tom wondered how the atmosphere suited the Alton brother now.

He watched as Meade swung down from the horse. The deputy stood at least a foot taller than the other two, the brim of his hat curving down as he talked with them. He had migrated up to Cloudcroft two years ago after spending ten years with the 10th Cavalry at Fort Concho over in San Angelo, Texas. Ten years too long, he told Harper. If he had to protect settlers he would rather do it in a place that had more to look at than scrub brush and yucca plants. Tom informed him that Alamogordo was only a half-day’s ride down the mountain if he ever got homesick.

After talking with the Alton brothers, Ethan walked toward the scene. Tom spoke first.

“The Winters family been notified?”

“Took Sarah with me,” Ethan said, referring to his wife. “She stayed behind to offer Mrs. Winters some comfort.”

“What did the wife have to say?”

“It appears Jeremiah left the ranch out of sorts some time yesterday evening. They haven’t seen him since.”

“She say why he was upset?”

“She didn’t know. Said her son didn’t know either.”

“So you didn’t talk to him?”

“He was out doing chores, and I didn’t stay. I figured you would need me back here.” Meade chucked his chin. “What do you have?”

“Not quite sure. There’re horseshoe prints all around. This here, though, is a boot heel.” He ran his finger along the earth. “Looks like the owner gave a slip and fell. The mark runs almost a foot long.”

“With the rain last night, it wouldn’t surprise me if Winters took a spell.”

“Maybe. But why would a man dismount out here,” he looked around, “in the middle of a storm?”

“A man who plans to hang himself ain’t using the good sense God gave him, if you ask me.”

“Did his wife say what he was planning to do?”

“No, I’m just guessing.”

“Well, let’s hold off on the guessing.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


I was swirling through YouTube last night, that whirlpool of wasted time and entertainment, where most people actually embarrass themselves in a public format. On a whim, I executed a search for Stephen King. Wouldn't you know it? There are handful of good interviews. One in particular caught my attention.

Mr. King stood on a platform, apparently addressing a mob of collegians and taking questions. On this particular video, the person asked what advice he would give young people who wanted to develop a career in writing. There was this long pause, coupled with a look that (to me) said he wished he didn't have to address the same question for the billionth time during his life. I'm sure that famous authors get tired of the same questions. Can't we ask something that will surprise them? But then, without any snide remarks he graciously responded. You have to do a lot of reading, he said. You also have to do a lot of writing. You can't get around putting in the work. He mentioned that he has little patience for people who say they want to write but have little time to read, adding that with reading there comes this "magical moment" when a person puts down a book and says: "That really sucks. I can do better than that. And that was published." Listening to Mr. King, I found myself laughing and clapping my hands.

He went on to emphasize that reading means "everything", which I interpreted as variety. While a writer needs to focus most of her attention to reading in her specialized genre, she must be willing to read works from other categories as well. This is why I have read works from the Classics, Mystery, Horror and (yes) Chick-Lit, which is not to degrade that genre or its writers. In fact, of my favorite Chick-Lit writers Jennifer Weiner (author of both In Her Shoes and Little Earthquakes) ranks at the top. The decision to read this variety is to keep me balanced and, hopefully, at the top of my craft. If I want to write a scene with sexual tension, I can fall back on my exposure to Chick-Lit. If I want to craft a story with evil creatures chasing a protagonist, I can pull from my readings in Horror.

Reading. As a writer, you can't do without it. As Mr. King said in the video, "You have to do the work."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


The question posed on the Writer’s Digest Forum asked what gift would a writer would like to receive to further his own craft. Some listed reference tools, like the Oxford English Dictionary. Others listed technology, like voice recorders for interviews. I listed books. Reading, in my opinion, is one of the best resources to improve one’s writing. By studying the works of others, one can understand issues of plot, character, scene and setting. Reading authors like Elmore Leonard can improve the understanding of what works in dialogue. While reading alone is not a miracle cure--there’s much to be said for physically putting the pen to paper--it is a far better resource than a whiz-bang software package that promises to support a writers specific needs. After all, how can a computer or a program help a person write better? Even spell checker is incapable of recognizing that some words, while spelled correctly, just do not fit the sentence. The point is, a writer can have all the techno-gadgets at her disposal and still produce a cumulative pile of illiterate crap.

This year marks my tenth anniversary to my wife. Four years into this writing adventure, after listening to the countless discussions from yours truly about writing, authors, sentences, dialogue, and so-on, she has come to understand just how BIG this writing thing is in my life. How could she not, what with all the chatter I give her on a daily basis? For an anniversary gift, then, she gave me a pair of leather bound bookends and two hard-back, collected volumes of novels by both Mark Twain and Jane Austen. What great gifts! The bookends are solid and heavy. And the books--complete and unabridged, with twelve classic novels combined--promise to give me hours of reading enjoyment and plenty of opportunity to study the craft of two of the greatest authors of all time. In fact, I plan to read at least one of these novels during the Christmas holiday.

Now to write some more…