Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Honoring Veterans

Some days, in the middle of our busy life, it's not a bad idea to stop and take a look at the bigger picture...even if you're in hot pursuit of your dream.

For the past several years, I've donated proceeds from one of my books to support veterans. Up until this year, the book has been The Last Horseman. Today, I made the donation from the November 2013 sales of this book in all formats to Remind.Org. It wasn't as much as I'd like (sales are down some), so I rounded up to $100.

I realize it's not a lot of money, but I figure every little bit helps. And hopefully, it raises a little bit of awareness, too.

For 2014 and beyond, I'm designating the book Chisolm's Debt as the title for this charity drive. All sales in all formats (print, ebook, audio) in November 2014 will be donated to veteran's support. Remind.Org remains my charity of choice, unless I discover another veteran's charity that is more fitting (and more local).

So in the middle of writing, in the middle of promoting March Craziness sales, planning my next writing workshop, working with the narrator for the next audio book production, and any number of other writing and writing business tasks, I'm glad I took the time to stop. To send that token amount. Leave a message on that wall. Help a little. And realize how fortunate I am, in so many ways.

Whether you support or oppose the politics, let's take care of our troops and veterans.

Because a dream is worth much without freedom.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Scorecard So Far?

Last June, I put in my papers after twenty years as a cop. Why? To be a full time writer.

Since then, what have I done?

Well, I went to Italy for a month on a research trip. Things I learned and saw on that trip will go into at least three books I have lined out.

I'm teaching my second writing seminar to some cool writers with some great stories of their own.

I released Chisolm's Debt, a story about Vietnam, guilt, redemption, and honor. I also designated it as my donation book for veteran support. Each November, all sales of this title for the entire month will be donated to support veterans. So far, the charity recipient has been Remind.org.

I've started (and am continuing it) on several collaborations...more to come on that in the future.

I just released two books in two weeks. At Their Own Game, a noir-ish story complete with crime, violence, money, and a femme fatale, came first on Feb 1. 

It was followed fourteen days later by my third collaboration with Jim Wilsky, Closing the Circle (the third in a loosely associated trilogy that started with Blood on Blood and continued with Queen of Diamonds).
So...seven months or so of retirement. One month in Italy. Three books released. Moving full speed ahead. Scorecard so far?

Solid B.

Except, you know what? I don't really need a scorecard, do I? I'm doing what I love. The words keep coming. The stories are still exciting. The characters live. That's what matters most, and all the rest is really just wonderful bonus material.

That doesn't mean I don't want you to buy the books, however. Fill your Kindle with Zafiro goodness, please. And let me know what you think, because that's part of what's great about the writing experience. When you connect with a reader through your work, it's exhilarating. I think that it is really only second to that moment of creation when the story first hits the page, and that's a pretty glorious moment.

I'm experiencing more of those these days, across the boards.

You don't have to quit your job or retire and pursue your dream like I did, but I would encourage you to find what brings you those glorious moments. Then find a way to make sure you're around when they happen. As I approach 50 (still more than four years away but less and less of a theoretical concept than it once was), I recognize more and more that we have no idea how many days we have left on this planet, but we do know that they are finite. Don't be at the end of those days wishing you had tried something or done something. I think the last emotion I want to feel is love, not regret.

It's a balancing act, though, isn't it? Responsibilities and security on one side, the top of Maslow's hierarchy on the other.

Nobody said it would be easy, did they? Like I tell my youth hockey team when I preach to them about how hard you have to be willing to work to win, and how difficult it may be to execute on the ice...it ain't easy. I tell them that if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. If it were easy, it would be soccer.

All right, I know every soccer player and fan just deleted all my books from his/her Kindle, but you get my point. It isn't easy to find that balance.

But it is worth it.

And so are you.

#it'strue


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Like Frankie Said. Oh, and Monkeys (not the flying kind -- sorry)

Like old blue eyes said, "It was a very good year."

...and 2013 was.

I know it seems like everyone does a 2013 in review post and/or a resolutions for 2014 post. While I try to be original and unique, in a world of six billion people, I actually have better odds of winning the lottery than being unique. So I'll spare you the resolutions but I'm still going to do the review.

What's that?

Oh.

The  monkey just told me there's more like seven billion people in the world, not six. I'm not sure if that's supposed to prove my point or make me feel stupid.

Who's the monkey?

It's sort of an inside-ish joke. At the 2012 GET LIT! festival, I was on a writer's panel when someone asked a question about confidence or fear of failure or something along those lines. My reply was that I believed every writer has a monkey in his/her writing life. The monkey perches on some shelf or piece of furniture behind the writer while the keys are tapping and magic is happening and what the monkey does is what all monkeys do. He throws poo.

And yells.

"You suck!"

Throw poo.

"The story you're working on sucks, too!"

Throw poo.

"Don't show it to anyone. You know why? Because it sucks!"

And...throw poo.

I don't know, I told the audience. Maybe I'm the only one with a monkey. (Mine likes to hum the tune of Springsteen's I'm Goin' Down while I work). But if you have a monkey, too, then here's my advice:  don't listen to him. Don't throttle the little bastard, either, as much as you might want to. He serves a purpose. Actually, he does more than that. He provides a service. In small doses, the doubts he plants help ensure our best efforts. Those doubts  are why we give it "just one more read" before letting a book go, polishing and preening it on the way out the door. But taken too much to heart, the monkey is like cancer. Confidence cancer. So don't listen to him. You can't help but hear him, but don't listen.

People in the audience laughed in the appropriate places, and I think they got what I was saying. After the panel was over, I was talking to another writer named Brian Triplett. He gave me a serious look and told me, "Dude. The monkey pays half my rent."

I still laugh at that. Hey, Brian, at least your monkey contributes, right? Most of them don't even clean up after themselves.

Despite my resident monkey, 2013 was...well, a very good year. Here are the top ten great events that happened in my life in 2013. I'm limiting entries to my writing journey, since this is what this blog is about. Suffice it to say that if this were life as a whole, eight or nine of these entries would have to do my wife, family, and close friends. All right, caveat aside, here's the list:

Honorable Mentions:

At This Point in My Life Released

Okay, I'm cheating a little bit. This actually came out on December 9, 2012. But it really didn't get legs until 2013, so I'm including it.

Writing about a new and different character (Jack McCrae) was fun. Mac is different than most of the main characters I've written about in the past. He's almost sixty, for one. He's not as intense as some, either. At least, not at first...

I Finished Drafts of At Their Own Game 

By December 31, I had drafts out to readers and several have come back. I'm anticipating a Q1 release for this novel.

This is much different from most of the crime fiction I've written in that Jake Stankovic isn't a cop or a detective or retired law enforcement. He's a criminal, plain and simple. Writing from that angle was a fun departure, and I'm sure I'll be doing it again.

10. Books in Motion Picked Up the River City Series for Audio


Locally based audio publisher Books in Motion became the River City publisher in 2012. But they produced all four River City crime novels in 2013. Narrator Michael Bowen did a stellar job, really capturing several of the characters with his performance.

9. More Audio Books Released Through Amazon

The remainder of my novels were produced as audio books through ACX, an Amazon subsidiary. This was a different process than with Books in Motion because I was essentially the executive producer for each title. I chose the narrator and directed the performance (in a strategic sense). This made for a great deal of work but it was also a lot of fun. The results were outstanding. Check out the audio samples on Some Degree of Murder, or Blood on Blood, or...well, really, on any of them. I was fortunate to work with very talented and professional narrators.

Hearing your book performed by a narrator is cool experience, too. Especially when the narrator nails the passage or the piece of dialogue exactly the way you heard it in your head when you wrote it.

I enjoy audio books and am looking forward to those future productions.

8. Queen of Diamonds Released

This second book in the Ania saga follows Blood on Blood, and takes us to Las Vegas. It was a fun book to write. You've got poker players (a cowboy circuit champ and an ex-baseball player), Swedish gangsters, crooked casino bosses, and sexy siren Ania, all set in Sin City, USA. What's not to like? In fact, why are you not reading this book right now (or listening to Johnny Peppers' great narration)?

Working with Jim Wilsky has been a blast. Not only is he a great writer but he's a great partner and friend. Which leads me to...

7. Closing the Circle Finished and Almost Ready

The third book in the Ania saga, again written with Jim Wilsky. This one was a little more work at times but remained an enjoyable a writing experience. Working out story and plot with Jim is much easier than one would expect, and we have a process that works. Here's hoping every calendar year has a Wilsky/Zafiro title release.

As an aside, the fact that Jim is working on a solo project (also a crime novel) doesn't necessarily belong on my list, because it's his accomplishment to trumpet, but I don't think I'm overstepping to say YES! and I CAN'T WAIT!

6. Write Your Novel! Workshop

In October, I was joined by five brave souls as I taught a workshop about getting through that first draft of your novel. I really enjoyed the experience and was thoroughly impressed with the writers who attended. As is often the case, teaching is learning, and I know I got at least as much out of the workshop as the writers who attended. In less than week, we start the REVISE YOUR NOVEL! workshop*, so there's another journey to look forward to.

* You can still sign up for this one. It starts January 7.


5.  Chisolm's Debt Released

Thomas Chisolm is one of my favorite River City characters. He was based on a real person, at least initially. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and somehow comes through most of the time.

For years, I've been very interested in why he does that. Where did his guilt come from? And is that a weight he could ever shed? Out of that wondering came this story, which encompasses Chisolm's experience in Vietnam as a nineteen year old soldier which set him on a path that he only comes to the end of as a retired cop in his sixties. It's a story about redemption, the toll of war, and about personal peace.

Chisolm's Debt has now replaced The Last Horseman as the book I have designated for supporting veterans. Every November, all royalties from this title go to a veteran's support charity (currently Remind.org)...which brings me to....

4.  I Donated $1202.30 to REMIND.org

This felt great. Thanks to you readers, sales in 2012 were strong, and The Last Horseman was no exception. I was (really, we were) able to donate almost two and half times my $500 target to the veteran support organization Remind.org. I wrote extensively about why I chose this cause to support, but the short version is because it is the right thing to do. Our military members provide a tremendous service at great risk, and I staunchly believe we need to care for them when they return.

3. I Traveled to Italy for Research

In June and July, I traveled to Italia for a month with my wife and parents. It was certainly the trip of a lifetime from a vacation standpoint. Great locations, great company, great food, and great vino (lots of great vino). But my purpose was also to research for future novels. At the end of the month, I had three solid ideas mapped out. The first of them has bubbled up pretty high on the TO DO list, and is hovering in second place right now. So you can expect an action/thriller set in Venice sometime in the first half of 2014. A murder mystery set in Praiano (on the Amalfi coast) is also in the offing, as well as a generational saga that is a little bit of a departure from my crime fiction ways. You may need to read that one under my given name, even.

2. I Retired to Write Full Time

After a twenty year career with the Spokane Police Department, I decided it was time to take a leap. With the full support (even urging) of my wife, I retired to write full time. In fact, that's when I started this blog, and why it even exists -- to talk about that writing journey.

If you're thinking that retiring isn't such a ballsy move (my monkey threw poo at me and said it wasn't, that people do it all the time), let me add one element. I'm forty-five right now. The earliest I can draw my retirement pension is at age fifty. That leaves a five year gap.

Five years.

Yeah, there's where it gets a little risky, huh?

Take that, monkey.

But I'm lucky. Like I said, I have the full support of my wife (emotionally and financially) and we're making it work. And believe me, I'm tippy-tapping at the keyboard, too. Being a full time writer has been an adjustment but an exciting one. Thank you, Kristi, for making it happen. Thank you, friends and family, for being supportive. Thank you, readers, for buying, borrowing, and reading my work.

There's more on the way.

1. I Kept the Monkey at Bay

I hear ya, pal. I hear ya.

I'm just not listening.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Springsteen Sang a Song About Me

...back in about 1984.

Yeah, you  remember Born in the USA. Honestly, not even close to my favorite Springsteen album (does that word date me? Yup). But do you remember the song from that album, "I'm Goin' Down"? It's the one with the intellectual chorus...

I'm going down, down, down, down
I'm going down, down, down, down
I'm going down, down, down, down
I'm going down, down, down, down

Now, I know it sounds like I'm bagging on the Boss, but I'm not. Anyone who knows me also knows that I'm a life-long Springsteen fan. Moreover, it's the songwriting that I admire most (though he is a hugely underrated guitarist, too).

But what's with these lyrics? Well, here's the part of this blog post where we make a massive transition...ready?

Amazon ranks authors in various categories, based upon book sales. Over the last year, I've been falling slowly but steadily. In fact, here's a visual representation, courtesy of Amazon:

Hard to read? Maybe, but the trend should be clear. Just in case it isn't, though...



Even easier to see now, huh?

I'm going down, down, down, down...

So this has been bothering me for a while. I've tried (and will continue to try) different promotions to raise my profile (and sales), and honestly, I don't know if they've worked or not. You can see upticks and down slides along that graph, so is that a result of my efforts, or just the way of the buying public?

Who knows?

Anyway, like I said, I let myself get a little bothered by this downward trend. I looked at it as a negative event, one that somehow defined me as a writer. Something like "Oh, my ranking is going down. I must suck." Well, maybe not that fragile, but you get the idea.

Then (and I have my wife to thank for this, whether she realizes it or not) I stumbled across the real meaning of this graph and the statistics behind it. I discovered the truly important facts surrounding it. So here are the top ten facts I gleaned (and in honor of the Boss quote at the beginning of this post, we will count them down).

10. Graphs suck.

9. No, really. Graphs suck. They should be outlawed, especially if they make you feel bad. Even if they are, like, factual and stuff.   

8.  Wait a minute. To be on that graph, I have to have written a book. I wrote a book! Yes! [victorious fist pump]

7. Wait another minute. I wrote more than one book.  Yay me!

6. Hold on now. This is getting crazy, but....that graph means SOMEONE BOUGHT ONE OF MY BOOKS! That's right, someone paid money to read something I wrote. Sha-zam!

5. Last year, I was (albeit briefly) the #1 Police Procedural author on all of Amazon. Michael Connelly was #2. Uh....wow! (Michael Connelly is still #5. Good for him. He deserves to be.)

4. Amazon sells more books than anyone else in the world, so #1 on Amazon really means...#1 in the world. That means that (albeit briefly), I was the #1 Police Procedural author in the world. Uh...speechless.

3. I'm still #99 on Amazon (in the world!), which is pretty damn cool.

2. People are still buying, reading, and reviewing my books, and I'm still writing them, no matter what my number is on that graph.

1. I write because I'm a writer, and I love it. Everything else is gravy.

That last one is really the lynch pin of my little wife-induced epiphany. It doesn't mean I don't care about sales or ranking or reaching readers. Of course I do. But it does draw into focus what my purpose really is. My purpose is to write, because that is what I do. I strive to improve my craft, to tell another story and another after that, to connect with a reader, all because I am a writer.

Lastly, I think this entire thought process reinforced in me the importance of recognizing the truly good things you have in your life rather than lamenting what may be missing or imperfect. I mean, how many people want to write but never put pen to paper fingers to keyboard? I've been lucky to have realized my dream, and to be living it.

So this is what I've learned, though I imagine many of you already knew it. Sorry to be late to the party, but here's what I bring:

Enjoy your success...but don't let others define it for you.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Teaching...or Fellowship?

As I write this, I am sitting in a classroom with a half dozen other writers. One is T. Dawn Richard, who is talking right now. She's discussing story structure and asking the other five writers to write down the opening image of their book.

In an hour or so, we'll tag team the subject of character. And so it will go, all day long.

Wait. Those who can't do...teach?

I've never believed that line, actually. Sometimes the best coaches weren't superstar players but mid-level grinders who made the pros because they understood the game. Sometimes people like to teach something because it is something they are good at and are passionate about.

That's how I feel about teaching writing.

There's today's one-day intensive that I'm sure Dawn and I will teach again. And then there's the six week workshop I'm teaching at Auntie's Bookstore.

But am I really teaching?

On a surface level, sure. I'm teaching and sharing craft, technique, and passion. No question.

But it really is more about fellowship. It's about learning from each other. I am constantly astounded at passages that a supposedly "new" writer reads aloud or sends as part of an exercise. The raw talent and passion, the incredible turn of phrase, the obvious love for language...it is inspiring.

Life is full of exchanges. We give our employer time or product, and that employer gives us money. We give the grocer money, he gives us food. We give the lawyer money, she gives us a legal service. Exchanges. Sometimes we feel like we got a fair deal, other times maybe it was unequal.

Teaching is an exchange, too. You'd think that the balance would be heavily tilted in favor of the student, and maybe in some cases it is. But for me, I discovered long ago that the balance is really very much tilted in the favor of the instructor. I learn from teaching, I learn from the students, and the students are inspiring. Their success becomes, emotionally at least, my success.

It isn't just teaching writing. I've taught in my previous career in law enforcement. I coach youth hockey. And in both of those endeavors, the experience is very much the same -- you give everything you can to the act of teaching, but no matter how much you give, it seems as if more comes back to you.

My wife teaches middle school, which is exhausting. But I sometimes think her exhaustion also stems from the exhilaration of this kind of success with her students.

We are all on a writing journey. This blog is about a writer's journey, not a teacher's journey. But teaching the craft of writing makes me a better writer. Sharing time with other writers brings fellowship, which I believe makes a writer's life richer...which makes you a better writer.

And frankly, I've got debts to pay, to writers who have helped me that I can never pay back. So I pay it forward, hopefully with interest.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Who's So-and-So Based On?" : Using Real People as Character Inspirations

Writers steal. That’s a simple, constant truth.

Okay, maybe “steal” is a strong word. “Borrow” may be more accurate. Or better yet, let’s say writers draw on everything in their experience in order to create fiction.

When I say they draw on everything, I do mean everything. Every experience, every place, everything we ever saw or heard of is fair game. That means people too.

Whenever a writer creates a character there is always the suspicion that somehow he or she is based upon someone the writer knows or knew. If the writer is telling a story closely related to his own career, such as a police officer writing mysteries or police procedurals, for example, the suspicion is even greater.

It doesn’t help that one of the most oft given pieces of advice is “write what you know.” This isn’t bad advice. If you write what you know, your stories will have an air of authenticity to them. While authenticity alone won’t make a bad story good, it can make a good story better. It also puts the writer in a comfort zone in which he operates from a position of confidence. Confidence is always an important element in producing good work.

But the suspicion remains. Was character X based upon so and so?

The answer is always yes.

Now before anyone points a finger and says “A-ha! I knew it!” or files a lawsuit, let me clarify. It is virtually impossible for a writer to create a character out of whole cloth. Just like there are no new stories under the sun, there are no new characters. Or at least character traits. Any little trait that a reader discovers his new character has probably has a basis can someone he knew or at least heard of. Maybe it was a coworker or someone he saw at the park or on TV. It’s entirely possible that the writer isn’t even aware of where that trait originated. It might occur to him as a stroke of brilliance. “Hey! What if this guy calls everybody ’Chuckles’?” The fact that the writer saw this in the movie nine years ago might be the core inspiration. Truth be told, it might not even be something he remembers, but it’s there nonetheless.

I don’t mean to say that whole character traits come from subliminal memories. Some of them are very purposeful. But just because a particular character shares a particular trait with a real person that the writer knows doesn’t mean that character is based on that person. It could mean that particular trait was stolen… err, borrowed… err, drawn from the writers experience with that real person. In all likelihood, the trait will be modified and heavily amplified when it is applied to the fictional character. After all, this is fiction and requires greater drama than real life.

I’m speaking strictly for myself, although I suspect many or even most writers have a similar experience. Writing mysteries and police procedurals novels while simultaneously working as a police officer and drawing on those experiences to create more compelling and authentic fiction has certainly made people wonder if I’ve based characters on real people.

Of course I have.

But as I explained above, I have drawn little pieces from here and there. A habit from this person, a snarky phrase from that one, some small piece of nobility from another. I’ve drawn from people I’ve worked closely with, people I’ve come across briefly, and cops I’ve seen on TV and movies. I’ve drawn from situations I’ve encountered and some I’ve only heard about. Some of it has been purposeful and I’m sure some of that has seeped in through my subconscious.

That’s what writers do.

So for those people who wonder who the real Lieutenant Alan Hart is… I’ll never tell.

[grin].

Actually, while I did have a particular person in mind when I first began writing about that character, he quickly took on a life of his own. By the end of the first book and certainly by the time of the second, Hart became an amalgam of every weasel and every bureaucrat I’d ever met since grade school.

And what about Katie MacLeod? Did I have someone in mind when I penned her?

Of course. She actually started life as two different cops but I eventually combined both characters and their respective story arcs into one. By the time I did that, Katie was already herself. As the series has gone on, she has outgrown her inspiration, taken on traits from new inspirations, and most of all, she has grown and developed in her own right.

All of this is to say that while characters may have some source of inspiration or may bear some single point of resemblance to a real person, the writer’s real goal is to bring that fictional character alive. For the character to stand on his or her own two feet and be completely independent. That’s really when the magic starts happening. Everything else, to quote a little Breaking Bad, is a precursor.

Having said all of that, I come to Thomas Chisolm, the protagonist in my new novella, Chisolm’s Debt. Chisolm was originally based on a veteran cop I know named Tom Chapman. Tom was and is a veritable legend at the Spokane Police Department. Like Chisolm, he served in Vietnam as a Green Beret, was a veteran presence on patrol for years, has a great sense of humor, and is a straight talker. He even has the same scar. In fact, you could easily say that Thomas Chisolm was based on Tom Chapman, because he was. I took all of those elements that I admired in Tom and gave them to Chisolm.

Then a funny thing happened. Chisolm took on a life of his own. He faced his own demons, dealt with his own problems, and became a very different person than who Tom Chapman became. Tom, retired now for several years, is undoubtedly happier than Chisolm. For starters, he’s married, and Chisolm isn’t. He and Chisolm have taken the divergent paths in this world… or actually in their respective worlds. And while the basis for Chisolm had the far too many ingredients from the real Tom for me not to see some Chapman sometimes when I look at the Chisolm, Thomas Chisolm has emerged from the very real shadow that his inspiration casts. The truth is, when I look at Chisolm, I see him… most of the time.

Even so, as an homage to the man to inspired the character, I used a photograph of Tom Chapman on the cover of Chisolm’s Debt. I figured it was only fair, since he never asked for anything. I went to him before Under a Raging Moon was published and confessed that I’d based a character closely on him, and asked if he was all right with that. I said I could revise the character if he wanted (although that would have been less than ideal). Tom was flattered and graciously gave me the thumbs up. He was also intelligent enough to get the difference between reality and fiction and to know that this character would travel his own path.

And he has.

Anyway, that is one piece of the writing life. This is where some characters come from, and where pieces of all of them come from.

Oh, I almost forgot. There’s part of the writer in every single one of those characters, too. But that’s for another post.