Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Serial characters, cliffhanger endings and other odds and ends

Once upon a time I got a two-book deal with a major New York publisher. The advances on the two books were such that if offered to a new writer today, that writer would swoon. Money, though, was just the start. My agent of the time told me the publisher wanted to make me their next best-selling writer. It was enough to make an impressionable fellow giddy. And in the fashion of a game show, that wasn't the end of the goodies. The publisher gave me separate contracts to reprint an earlier novel, the rights to which I'd regained, and more money for the audio rights to the two books they would publish.

It was the kind of bonanza that seemed appropriate for all the years I'd toiled without making a cent from writing fiction. Then, as fairy tales must, the happy story came to an abrupt end.

A very important person at the publishing house had told me that if there was any part of the first novel — the basis of the deal and all its treasure — that I wanted to keep intact I could. Silly me, I took this promise seriously, and then I did the unthinkable. I insisted on keeping the ending of the novel as I originally wrote it.

That was a terrible mistake from the standpoint of my writing career. My relationship with the publisher was all downhill from there. Any chance of future contract, big money and more books with the publisher went right out the window.

Now, here's the thing about the ending and why the publisher wanted me to change it: I killed off the book's hero. That was a creative choice that in my opinion best served the story. It also gave my writing an edge most authors in the mystery/thriller field lacked. You'd have a harder time guessing the ending of one of my stories because I was crazy enough to kill my leading man. All that was academic to the publisher. Killing that character meant there would never be a series featuring him.

Well, hell, I thought of the book as a stand-alone novel. I never would have killed that character if I'd had more stories in mind for him. But I didn't.

Jim McGill, on the other hand, was conceived from the start as a series character. His stories would not have conclusive ends. The stories would flow from one to the next and there would always be some ambiguity to them. In The President's Henchman, the novel that introduces McGill, there's a murder that's left unresolved, and the fates of several characters, e.g. Erna Godfrey, remain to be seen. I could have had Erna executed, but that would have ended her creative possibilities.

In The K Street Killer, the fates of two of the more important characters in the series are left in doubt. This has raised the ire of some readers. In a way, that's flattering to me. I created characters who have engaged the reader emotionally to such a point that a delay in knowing what happens to them next is frustrating. Damnit, where's the resolution? It's on a notepad in my office. Not even in my computer where it might be hacked.

I need to say at this point that I'm not simply being mean. Creating suspense is part and parcel of my job. If I don't keep the reader clicking along (digital-speak for turning pages) from one chapter to the next I'm out of work. Keeping the reader moving from one book in the series to the next is simply the same process on a larger scale.

As a writer, it's also part of what makes storytelling fun for me — and, believe me, if I'm not having any fun doing the writing, you're not going to have any fun doing the reading.

There have been a few uncharitable souls who have accused me of using the cliffhanging ending in TKSK strictly for monetary reasons. Hah! If money was what moved me most, I would have knuckled under to the publisher I mentioned above and likely be a rich man now.

That is, if my muse hadn't deserted me. Which she'd have every right to do if I became a hack.

Now, let me riff a bit about series characters. I grew up reading John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels, absolutely loved them. I also devoured Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch novels. The dialogue Mcdonald wrote absolutely knocked me out and influenced my own work. But both authors wrote books in which McGee and Fletch came off flat as steamrolled pancakes.

It's simply what happens if you let your series character follow a formula you've developed for him. In TKSK, I decided before I wrote a word that there would be changes from certain patterns I followed in TPH and THC. McGill has to face the terrifying prospect of losing two of the people he loves most, not to any hokey villains but to terrors that might afflict any of us: illness and cruel twists of fate.

As he confronts his terrible choice, he doesn't know how things will turn out. (Poor guy, his fate is in my hands.) So I thought the best way to end the book would be to put the reader in the same boat as the hero. Only seemed fair.

Rest assured, all questions will be answered in The Last Ballot Cast. Well, all but one.

So, one of the ways I'm keeping McGill fresh is to throw a few change-up pitches at him, but another way to do it is by not writing his stories exclusively.

My next novel will be called Tall Man in Ray-Bans. It will feature John Tall Wolf, a special agent for the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). The novel is a murder mystery set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, California, Vancouver, British Columbia, Boston, Massachusetts, and Banff, Alberta.

John Tall Wolf will be a meta-character for me. He will have his own novels, he will be a major character in the sequel to Nailed, which I hope to publish in the second half 0f 2012 and will also figure prominently in a trilogy featuring yet another new character.

If you like my writing, despite the occasional moments of frustration, of which there are likely to be more, you're likely to have a lot more good stuff to read — God willing.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rallying 'Round "Round Robin"

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to engage in a bit of hard sell here. I've written a book I think is absolutely wonderful. I'm not the only one who holds it in high regard. The book has twenty reader reviews on Amazon; sixteen are five-star reviews, four are four-star reviews. They range from enthusiastic to gushing approval. Problem is, this book isn't close to being part of the mystery/thriller genre in which I usually work.

"Round Robin" is described on its cover as an epic love story. If it were a movie, it would be a romantic comedy. Compared to the stories I usually write, it's a book without a body count. What it has in common with my other books is a large cast of interesting characters, smart dialogue and more than a few laughs — way more than a few laughs. It also has heart, by the ton.

The two principal characters are Robin Phinney and Manfred Welk. Robin is described as 230 pounds of bad attitude. Manfred is as big as an NFL lineman, and stronger to boot. You'll love both of them; you won't be able to help yourself.

I want to sell a lot more copies of "Round Robin" than I've been selling so far, and then I want the new readers to tell everyone they know. Then I want those people to tell everyone they know. Get the idea? The book is that good.

Don't take my word for it, though. Below are the headlines from the reader reviews on "Round Robin" and a link to its Amazon Kindle page, its B&N Nook page and its iTunes page too. Check it out. You thank me later.

A romance with comedy and depth.
Loved this book!!!!!!
Romantic, comical and heart-tugging.
Pushing Past her Self-Imposed Limits.
Plus sized Entertainment.
Fun read.
Fun Summer Read.
Fun and Entertaining.
Thoroughly enjoyable.
Cute story.
Sweet, heartwarming story.
Where's the apple strudel recipe?
A wonderfully poignant and humorous novel!
Super Sized Adventure.
Thoroughly enjoyable read.
Another winner.
A sweet, fun read.
Great Read!!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Getting High from Writing

Last weekend, I posted a question at The Writers' Cafe, one of the discussion boards under The Kindle Boards umbrella. This is a place where indie writers gather to ask questions, post news, do a little bragging, complain about this, that or the other. I asked: Do you ever get "high" from writing? I explained that I didn't mean do you ever get high in order to write? That's something else entirely.

The responses were gratifying to me, as I definitely get high from writing. Here are a few comments from other writers.

"I LOVE it when I get lost in that "zone" of the world I am creating. Sometimes I have a hard time coming back."

'Yes, definitely! … It can be quite a rush and sometimes I can feel my heart thumping along with my characters'.

"I always seem to buzz after a writing session."

"Yes, yes, yes! It's so awesome when that happens."

"Definitely, it can be quite a rush when the story is flowing."

So much for the idea of the writer toiling away in solitude, often blocked, the work torturous. Okay, it might be that way for "serious" writers who produce "literary" fiction. But if you're looking for that stuff you've come to the wrong place.

I think of what I do as writing smart entertainment, equal emphasis on each half of the equation. Most popular fiction writers, I think, are also entertainers. They want to give their readers a good time, have them laugh and cry in all the right places. Given the state of the world, now and pretty much always, that's a worthwhile thing to do.

If we can make a living from our writing and get the occasional word of encouragement, we're happy.

So my advice to readers is: Remember that emotions are contagious. If you're looking for a good book, see if it seems like the author had a high old time writing it.

(If you'd like to read the whole thread on The Writers' Cafe, here's the link:,93140.0.html)

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I look at it as a communal birthday party, a celebration that all the people I love who started out the year together are still with me and for the most part doing fine. There have been years, of course, where not everybody made it to Thanksgiving, but the spirit of the day still made me grateful for having known them, having been the beneficiary of their love and generosity, having the opportunity to raise a glass to their memories and toast them for making my life richer in every sense.

I hope that the work I do, my writing, contributes moments of enjoyment to the people who read my books. I know that hope is at least partially validated by the fan letters I get and the reviews my books receive. I'm thankful for that, too.

I'm thankful to my family and friends for their support in helping me to work at a profession that is pretty much a crapshoot when it comes to making a living. But with the emergence of e-books, Kindles and other e-readers we're making a go of it.

I'm thankful that my muse continues to be generous and I'll have stories to write for years to come. I'm thankful that, with all the people who haven't read my work yet, I'll have all sorts of opportunities to build my audience.

I'm thankful that right now I can get back to work on a new novel.

I thank God, my family, my friends and my readers for all of the above.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The perils of cliff-hanging

Al Capp, the famous cartoonist who created Li'l Abner, said that more people bought newspapers if they were worried by a comic strip than if they were merely amused by one. Capp pointed out that if you read Dick Tracy, you didn't laugh when you got to the last panel. You gasped or moaned when a gun was fired at the famed detective. There was no peace for the reader until he or she found out what happened.

The above bit of folk wisdom comes from the book The Art of the Funnies by Robert C. Harvey.

It applies perfectly, however, to the novelist who employs cliff-hanger endings, as I do in my Jim McGill series: The President's Henchman, The Hangman's Companion and now The K Street Killer. In all three books in the series, I end the story with a character placed in sudden jeopardy.

In the new McGill novel, which I abbreviate TKSK, there is a crucial difference. I raise the stakes big time. In The President's Henchman and The Hangman's Companion, the characters who find themselves in danger are important but supporting figures. In TKSK, there are two characters placed at risk: one a principal character, the other someone guaranteed to tug at heartstrings.

The early reactions to the book have been: Loved the story, hated being left in suspense. "I'll have to wait months to find out what happened."

At this point, I need to say that nothing in my professional life makes me happier than making my readers happy. That reaction tells me I have not labored in vain. It also says I'll be able to support myself long enough to write again.

Nonetheless, I have to follow where my muse leads me. If I don't, my source of inspiration might take a powder. Then all I'd be is a guy with a good vocabulary and nowhere to put it.

So I ask you, dear reader, please indulge me my creative choices. They're what give me satisfaction and bring you the stories you, more often than not, find so winning. And bear in mind I'm not only honoring my muse, I'm also following the dictum of one of the greats of modern popular culture.

"Always leave 'em wanting more." Walt Disney

(Please let me know what you think about cliffhangers, characters in jeopardy, and writers listening to their muse.)