Recommended Book: “Monday’s Lie,” by Jamie Mason

Jamie Mason is one of many authors that I saw at ThrillerFest last week — she was speaking on a panel about “protagonists that rock.” It’s pretty typical at these panels for the moderator to introduce all the guests and say a little about their most recent book. In this case, when the moderator (Sandra Brannan) introduced Ms. Mason, she talked about Monday’s Lie and said some things that caught my attention. In particular, she talked about the amazing way Ms. Mason develops a particular character that barely appears in the book at all.

I admit that I’m not the most trusting person in the world: It sounded intriguing, but I still downloaded the free sample to my Kindle app.

When I got to the end of the free sample, I was totally hacked off because I had to stop for a whole 10 seconds to buy the book and find my place to keep reading. Maybe it was 20 seconds… I don’t know. I just know I didn’t want to stop reading.

Ms. Brannan wasn’t exaggerating when she talked about this book. I thought the character development was excellent. The main characters have exceptional skills but they’re still very easy to identify with and care about. She-who-barely-appears is a pervasive and fascinating presence throughout the entire story.

I’m not going to say much more, because this is more of an “enthusiastic endorsement” than it is a review. You should read this book!

P.S.: If Ms. Mason brings any of these characters back in another book, I’ll definitely jump on it. Just sayin’.

Basic principles of story engineering

If you google “story engineering” you’ll quickly see that I’m not the first person to think of writing a story as a kind of engineering. I imagine that this seems strange to people who think of engineering as being more about calculation than creativity.

Let me describe to you the three fundamental things that I got out of my first Computer Science class. I think you’ll see immediately how these translate to writing:

  1. Define the “big problem” you’re trying to solve.
  2. Decompose (break down) the big problem into smaller, more manageable problems. If necessary, decompose those problems, and so on until you’re left with nice little problems that you know how to solve.
  3. You will find things you don’t like about the way you broke the big problems into smaller problems, and you will find things you don’t like about the way you solved some the small problems. Revisit those things until you’re happy with them.

There.  I just saved you a semester’s worth of tuition.

In all seriousness, these simple tools are incredibly useful. If you learn how to define your problems effectively and how to break them into smaller problems then you can accomplish almost anything. The third part – iterating – is mostly a matter of being open to new solutions and having the patience to spend the time to execute them.

In writing, the “big problem” is obviously your story idea. You may know a lot about it or you may only have a general concept. It doesn’t really matter. Just jot down notes about what you know, however much or little it is. If you don’t know much, then you’ll probably end up iterating more, but so what? You’re going to iterate some regardless. If nothing else, ask yourself this question: What would have to be true about this story when it’s done in order for me to be happy with it? Maybe it needs to capture a certain tone? Express a certain idea? Leave the reader feeling a certain way?

In writing, the story is decomposed (broken down) into scenes. So… take a look at your notes about what you want to accomplish in your story and start jotting down scenes that accomplish those things. You’ll probably find that most of the things you want to accomplish are too big for a single scene, so break them up and accomplish parts of them in different scenes. Conversely, you will find that a single scene can typically do double- or triple-duty (and be more interesting) by dealing with more than one of your smaller problems at the same time.

In writing, multiple iterations are multiple drafts — or at least multiple passes through the manuscript to deal with specific things.

Keep in mind that I titled this “basic principles of story engineering,” not “everything there is to know about story engineering.” At their core, though, this is how both writing and engineering work for me.

I took the picture above in the museum under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It seems like a great example of the relationship between engineering and art.

How to choose a pen name

If you’ve read my About Ryan page then you already know that Ryan Colvert is a pen name. There are lots of reasons why authors use pen names  — sometimes it’s business, sometimes it’s personal. In my case, it’s just that my real name is fairly easy to misspell or mispronounce. It seemed better to give people a name that they can easily share.

Once you decide you want to use a pen name, how do you choose one?  What makes for a good pen name?

These are the criteria I settled on when I was choosing mine. I’d be interested to hear if you have other thoughts.

  1. The surname should start with a letter that isn’t at the very beginning or the very end of the alphabet. This may be an out-of-date guideline at this point, but the idea is that you don’t want your book to be on the top shelf (above customer’s heads) or the bottom shelf (by their feet) in the bookstore. You want it to be somewhere around eye level.
  2. The name should be short. You want it to fit on the cover of your book in large letters, so potential customers can see your name from across the room.
  3. You want a name that’s unlikely to be misspelled or mispronounced. I mentioned this as my primary reason earlier — you just want to make it easy for people to talk about you or search for your name on their favorite book-purchasing web site.
  4. Choose a name that is suitable for your genre. You probably wouldn’t want a name like “Rose Lillypetal” if your stories are full of graphic descriptions of monsters disemboweling their victims.
  5. Make sure the domain name and twitter id are available. Google the name and check Amazon as well to make sure that you won’t be confused with someone else, especially another author.

Strangely, I didn’t choose Soren Kierkegaard as my pen name. The picture above was taken in the cemetery where he’s buried when we visited Denmark.

Why Writers Should Use Twitter (and HOW to USE It Effectively)

Some good thoughts from Kristen Lamb here… Don’t limit your universe to other writers!

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 8.51.29 AMFor the last couple posts, we’ve been talking about how to use Twitter effectively. Too many writers are like Stormtroopers—lots of shots fired  tweets that hit NOTHING.

I can admit, when I got on Twitter (when it was invented) I didn’t get it. I would—KID YOU NOT—freak out when people I didn’t know followed me. WHAT? Are you, like, a stalker? Yes, I was missing the ENTIRE point of Twitter. Hey, we all start somewhere.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 8.32.45 AM

Do you have to do Twitter? No. No one will take you to writer jail because you didn’t. Is it wise to use Twitter? ABSOLUTELY.

I strongly recommend Twitter for two main reasons. First, couple Twitter with a good/consistent blog and this is your best formula to go viral. Secondly, Twitter helps us find READERS (and helps readers find US).

Going Viral

We will rarely go viral from Facebook because the nature of…

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Learning from my mistakes

My last few blog posts were the prelude to a thriller that I started and then abandoned half-way through. I had stumbled on the remains of that project and decided that it would be fun to post a bit of it.

It was fun to read that old material, but it was also valuable to look at it critically with the benefit of a little distance and experience. There are things I still like about it, but there are also things I would do differently if I were starting that project now. What’s really interesting is that now I can spot decisions that I made in that material that—at the time—I didn’t even realize I was making. I’m just more aware of certain things now then I was then.

Here are some of my thoughts:

Should that novel have had a prelude at all? Some people hate preludes, but I don’t. In this case, though, I don’t think it was needed. All this particular prelude really accomplished was to set a mood and establish a question in the reader’s mind. Those are legitimate things to do, but they could have been done in other ways with less “overhead.”

The entire prelude was told through narration. I did that to give the prelude a voice that was distinct from the main story. I think it was successful in that respect, but now I realize that it was also a risky decision. Some readers would probably be turned off by a couple of pages of solid narration. I certainly wouldn’t recommend using that approach for anything longer.

Tropes everywhere! If there were a contest for how many tropes could be jammed into a short space, I would submit this prelude. Tropes are unavoidable, but these days I like to think I put more consideration into which I use. See tvtropes.org for an entertaining and educational list of tropes.

Wordiness.

(See what I did there?) Seriously, though, the wordiness in this prelude comes from a combination of things: my natural tendency to be wordy and a lack of editing are big factors. But I think a lot of it also came from the writing process I was using at the time. I was still in the mode of obsessing about every sentence before moving on. Now, I draft by writing as fast as I can and leaving the tweaking for later.

It’s actually kind of nice to look back at old material. It makes me cringe a bit, but it also gives me a sense of progress. In its own way, that’s very motivating—it shows me that the work and practice are paying off, even if it isn’t always obvious when I’m in the middle of it.

(I took this picture in Berlin, through the window of a bus. A construction site with something beautiful in the background seems to have some parallels to this topic.)

Prelude to Southern Blood (part 3 of 3)

Start with part 1.

This material is (a) for mature readers and (b) contains elements some readers may find disturbing.


When the workers found his body the next morning, they only knew it was him because his truck was nearby. The Adjudant’s report stated that there was no way to know how he died, since jackals had found his body during the night and little was left of it.

Before long, the workers were nodding sagely and telling each other that this was bound to happen — they had tried to tell him. One of the men found an uncommonly flat stone nearby and declared that it was exactly the kind of stone that a jinn would make its home under; no doubt he had struck his foot against it in the dark and had failed to beg the pardon of the jinn. Perhaps now the overseers would listen!

They didn’t. Within the month a replacement arrived and drove them harder than ever to make up lost time. The flat stone, however, remained carefully untouched by the tramping of the workers. They also began stealing salt to ward away the Hidden Ones; for the next year, the worker’s barracks were better salted than their food.

The disappearance of the house-girl was noted, but no one was particularly concerned. The Adjudant speculated in his report that she may have indirectly caused the death of M. Joubert by running off into the night and provoking him to foolishly pursue her. She was a servant girl; such things happened.