Monday, December 15, 2014


One of the most difficult things writers have to contend with is the subject of plot development.  I mean, sure, we all have a story or two to tell, but it's not the process of getting from point A to point B that's important.  We're trying to get our characters from point A to point Z, and our plot points are points B through Y.  We are trying to develop our characters and plots so they will be more interesting because, honestly, we want the reader to care about them.  Love 'em, hate 'em, feel something goddamn it.  The worst possible thing that a reader can do is not care whatsoever.  Without some kind of emotional involvement, the reader has no reason to turn the page.

Let's take a look at the great theatrical spectacle that was 1980's-era pro wrestling.  Yes, I'm going to reference pro wrestling.  You got a problem with that?

Pictured:  My "You got a problem with that" face.
The two most popular characters in pro wrestling in the 80's were Hulk Hogan and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.  Hogan was a largely static character with over-the-top cartoonish proclamations to eat your vitamins, say your prayers, and exercise.  Piper was a kilt-wearing maniac with a fast mouth and a talent for causing trouble, and was one of the toughest sons-of-bitches on the planet.  His words, not mine.  For the record, here they are:

Guess which one was my hero...
Hogan was most often billed as unstoppable.  His routine went something like this:  Get to the ring, get beat down, "hulk up" (which involved shaking and quaking like he was trying to force a large piece of cheese out of his butt), then he'd point as his opponent and yell "YOU!"  Then came his own beat down.  Clothesline, big boot, leg drop, 1-2-3, and everyone celebrates.  It got old.  Really old, really fast.

Piper, on the other hand, was quite different.  You really weren't sure which "Roddy Piper" was coming to the ring.  The mouth?  The fighter?  The lunatic?  Piper kept the audience guessing.  Sure, his favorite finisher was the sleeper hold (which, for MMA fans, is a rear-naked choke), but he didn't always use it.  It was always a guess whether he'd finish his opponent off with that, stomp him into the matt, get himself purposefully disqualified, or any other of a thousand little things that my main man RRP thought of.  And before long a question arose.  Who was the biggest star?  It could be argued that people came to see Hogan win.  But I'm of the opinion that people were actually there to watch Piper lose. Piper did such a good job of making people hate him, he was actually stabbed by audience members.  Three times.  Think about that for a moment.  It's pro-freaking-wrestling for crying out loud!  And yet, RRP really got the people going.

Pictured:  Raleigh, North Carolina, pro wrestling crowd...

Then, an interesting thing happened.  Piper's character developed and Hogan's character didn't, and people started booing Hogan.  The great, the immortal Hulk Hogan, was getting boos from the crowd.  And who got cheered?  Rowdy Roddy Piper.  The difference?  Character development.  Plot development.  Let me explain.  Hogan's character never grew.  He was Superman without kryptonite: Boring.  But Piper took up causes.  His character developed from a crazy person to a person who let us see what was driving him crazy.  He became the original anti-hero (sorry, Stone Cold Steve Austin, but my man Piper beat you to it).  And in doing so, showed the importance of plot and character development.

As a kid, I watched so much pro wrestling that I wanted to be one of them.  But when I was growing up, it was the age of the "big men," and there was no place for a 5'6" guy in the world of pro wrestling.  So I kept watching.  One of my most beloved moments came when Roddy Piper came out before a crowd who screamed his name.  He took the microphone and said, obviously taken aback, "I'm not used to so many people cheering for me.  And I want to make it clear, I ain't running for president, and I'm still the same no-good sonovabitch I always been."  The crowd went insane with love.

So you see, Timmy...
At his core, Rowdy Roddy Piper was the same guy.  But his journey to get from point A to point Z had many twists and turns and made the audience care about him.  They cared enough to stab him.  They cared enough to scream when he came back.  They cared enough that they can't get enough of him.  And that's what you want for your characters.

Every character should be a different person at the end of the story.  Think about it.  You woke up this morning and had things happen.  At least, I hope you did.  And those events of the day made you react.  Even if it was a small thing, you've changed just a little today.  It's easier to see if you look at development over long periods of time.  Think about what you were like as a freshman in high school and try not to cringe.  Your characters need to have similar developments.  What affects your characters?  Pretty much everything. People they interact with, situations that call for decision making, death, birth, car trouble, rain... Everything.  The little changes are what make the character interesting.  The way he makes decisions, and what decisions he makes, bring the reader closer to him.

Pictured:  Stasis Chambers...

Stasis is boring.  There's no room for growth.  Your characters cannot stay in stasis if you expect for people to care about them.  Read any series of books and you'll watch the lead character grow through loss, love, gain, injury, personal epiphany, etc.  Your characters need to do the same.  If your lead character is exactly the same at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning, you're doing something wrong.

Just my $.02...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Advice for the One's

It's that time again.  Time for the newbs to descend on Seton Hill University and leap into the Masters in Writing Popular Fiction program.  As I've been teaching in the program for many years (almost since the beginning), I feel like I have the responsibility (and possibly the right) to throw a little advice around.  I speak only for myself as a mentor, not for everyone else in the program, but here are a few tidbits that I feel everyone needs to know.

  • Be Nice to Everyone - You don't know who you're talking to.  Let me say that again.  You don't know who you're talking to.  The person in your crit circle might have a day-job working as an acquisitions editor, or a critic, or might already be an author with more than 30 books under his or her belt.  Hell, one of them might be married to a major Hollywood producer (she knows who I'm talking about).  The writing community is notoriously small, and we have wickedly long memories.  
  • Check the Ego at the Door - When you show up, you may have a lot of notions about being a stand-out, or how good your work is, or a thousand other things.  Criticism is coming, and it won't always be gentle.  Here's the deal:  You're not as good as you think you are.  The good news is, you're also not as bad as you think you are.  You're here to learn.  Your mistakes as well as the mistakes of others will teach you loads, but you need to be open to criticism and realize the fundamental truth:  Nothing said in crit is meant to be taken personally.  Everything said in crit, and everything said by your mentor, is said for the sole purpose of making you better.  If you have trouble listening to what works, what doesn't, where your strengths and weaknesses are, and how to improve, you won't grow as a writer.  Which begs the question:  if you're in this program, but can't take criticism, what are you doing in the program?
  • Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation - As you are coming into a Masters program in English, it seems kind of like a no-brainer that you should have a grasp of mechanics.  Having said that, I realize that not everyone has the extensive background in English, and a large (and growing) group actually don't come from an English background.  That's fine and dandy, but it's now up to you to play catch-up.  This is an incredibly competitive path, and you want to be able to put your best foot forward. To wit, our jobs in the program are to help you have the best possible chance of getting your thesis published.  Agents, editors, publishers, etc. all get hundreds, if not more, manuscripts in their mailboxes every day.  To get through the monumental amount of mail, they have to look for any reason whatsoever to toss your manuscript in the trash.  Comma splice?  Gone.  Run-ons and fragments used improperly?  See ya.  And what we, as mentors, need to focus on  are issues like characterization, plot structure, world-building, and other things that you need to know if you're going to be a writer.  Making your mentor line-edit your manuscripts is just rude. Take the initiative and work on your mechanics so that you and your mentor and critique partners can focus on shaping your story. 
  • The Mentors Aren't Gods  - I know how a lot of us come across.  I, for one, can come across as a grade-A jackass over e-mail.  Many of us come across as egomaniacal monsters that get our jollies off of destroying the hopes and dreams of students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact is, if you take the time to get to know us, you'll realize that we're not.  We're passionate about writing.  We're passionate about our genres, and we're passionate about helping you become better writers.  Most of the time, critiques tend to focus on what's wrong with a manuscript, or on what doesn't work, and that can lead to the feeling that the mentor hates the student or can create animosity.  For the most part, the truth is that we focus on what needs improvement, and thats because we want you to succeed.  Read that last part again:  We want you to succeed.  So look at what we're trying to tell you, and realize that nothing said is a personal attack.  It's all done to point out weaknesses for you to repair. 
  • Avoid the Dining Hall - Seriously.  It's awful.  Taco Bell is right by the hotels. 
  • Socialize with EVERYONE - Don't segregate yourself by your class.  One's, go grab yourself a couple of fives (not literally... They're skittish), some fours, a three and a two, and talk to them.  Have a drink with them.  If you happen to see a mentor or two at the social, chat 'em up!   It really does make your life easier. 
  • Be Prepared - Read the assignments, crit pieces, etc. before the crit session.  You want your classmates to be respectful of your work, so be respectful of theirs too.  
  • Your Time - This is likely the only time many of you will have in which you get this kind of feedback.  This is likely the only time many of you will have for such honesty, such hard work, and so many people who only want you to succeed.  You will be able to talk to agents, editors, authors and publishers.  Do you realize how rare that is?  Take advantage of your time here.  Make the best out of it.  
  • Greensburg - Is a maze.  You will get lost.  Deal with it.  Half the fun of being at residency is trying new things and trying to figure out where the hell you are.  
  • Wendy Lynn - Do not piss this woman off.  She is royalty in the program, and usually is the one who knows what's really going on.  

Thursday, August 14, 2014

It's Been a Year...

…since you died.

One year ago, cancer claimed my first true love. For two years prior to that, I held your hand while I watched poison drip into your body to try to fight it. I shaved my head so we would match and you wouldn't feel so alone. I watched as you dropped down to weights that no adult human should ever be. I changed your diapers, held you in the shower, put you to bed and sang to you. Because that's what husbands are supposed to do, right? Love and honor, in sickness and in health, till death do us part? And then you died.

A year has passed. I tried to learn from your guidance to raise our daughters. Our youngest enters high school this year. Our oldest is still trying to find her way. I keep the house clean, that should please you. I cook now. Not like you used to, but I've learned a few of your recipes that make us feel like maybe you're still around. I got a new kitten too. I ride my Harley with your pendant as a keychain so that you are always with me, watching over me when I ride.

And still, I miss you.

I met a woman. You would like her. She's bright, and pretty, and creative and artistic. Our daughters like her. They love her. Not like you, of course, and she realizes that no one will ever replace you. But she loves me. She makes me feel like that part of me that died when you did might not be dead after all.

When you died, I wanted to die to be with you, but didn't for the sake of our children. Now, I build on the lessons you taught me to be a better father. And I still catch myself crying over the simplest things… Vanilla ice cream (your favorite), Saran-Wrap press & seal (which you used often), the scent of pomegranates, and certain areas of town. I'm crying now. And when I do, she comforts me.

I'll never forget you. I was married to you for twenty years. Your parents said we were too young to get married, but I stayed until the end. And I cried. And I still cry. And I loved you. And I still love you.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On Triggers and Bravery

There's been a trend recently of authors putting "trigger warnings" in their work.  "This work contains subject matter that may cause feelings of…" That sort of thing. So I figured I'd take a few moments and post my thoughts on bravery and triggers, and the difference between being brave and pandering.

So… Art imitates life.  We draw our best inspiration from the world around us and we write from our human condition.  And in that condition, things happen.  It's not a pretty world out there sometimes.  Rape, murder, discrimination, kidnapping, mutilation, molestation… The list goes on and on of the atrocities that man visits upon his fellow man (and by "man" in this case I mean all of human existence).  And these atrocities are, more often than not, ripe for the picking of someone like me who is trying to tell a story.  I mean, who wants to read a story about a person to whom nothing happens?  No one, that's who.  Why?  Because it's boring.  And so we mine our own experience and we write about things happening to our characters because it makes the story interesting.  It makes the story powerful.
Pictured:  Life Imitating Art

A writer's job is to tell a story, but also to create an emotional connection with the reader.  We want to make the reader feel what we want them to feel.  Love.  Hate.  Fear.  Dread.  We want to twist those little knobs in the brain and make you care about our characters and what happens to them.  Which, to at least one train of thought, means that using trigger incidents is a dirty trick, kind of like cheating.  And to another train of thought, it's perhaps the bravest thing a writer can do. Follow me on this…

For many of us, our work stands as allegories of our own experiences (Stephen King's treatment of alcoholism in The Shining immediately leaps to mind).  Which, often times, means that emotional connection we make is between the reader and something akin to a raw nerve for us.  When the person who inspired a certain character passed away, so did her character, and I relived that heartache and sense of loss all over again so that I could build that emotional connection and make you feel what I felt.  I want to share my feelings with the reader because, in that sense, I am not alone in that someone else feels it too.  From the reader's perspective, he is not alone because he understands that emotion, and now ties him to the story.  We all do it.  We all use the little experiences we've had and we write about them in cathartic release so that our souls are no longer burdened with them, so our hearts no longer feel alone because we've put them out there and inflicted them upon the world.
Pictured:  Reader

So… Then there are triggers.

When we make a connection so strong that it goes beyond "I understand" and moves to "holyshiticanfeelpanicandihavetobemedicatedandmyptsdiscomingback…" you might think the goal has reached its ultimate conclusion.  We created an emotional connection so strong, it sent the reader into therapy.  But that's not really the point.  I jokingly say we "inflicted" our memories on the world, but what we're really doing is trying to make people understand.  We're trying to create some perspective.  And for many of us, that means offering ourselves up as sacrificial lambs and laying our souls naked on a cutting board. We are vulnerable.  We offer ourselves up to you, the reader.
Pictured:  The Metaphor of the Writer's Soul

Of course, that's not true of all of us.  Just because I've never experienced what it means to be raped doesn't mean I can't write an effective rape scene.  But, for me at least, I will go and talk to victims and try to get them to open up about their feelings so I can accurately portray them on paper.  And, by proxy, I am leaving them bare on the cutting board in hopes that I can make someone else understand what they've been through.

But what exactly are we doing?  Do we actually want to alienate our readers?  Do we want them twitching in the corner, or having a panic attack over something we've written?  Most of us are very good at writing emotional scenes, and put things that pluck at the heart and emotions in every line we write.  But do we brutally assault the reader with them for the sake of making a sale?  Do we have the right to play God that way?
Pictured:  Playing God

To me, the difference is intent.  If you use triggers specifically because it will be shocking, well, there's a market for it, but that doesn't make it good.  If you use those events to develop the story, the characters, to try to make the reader understand what that was like… That, to me, is what makes a book literature.  To me, that's the goal.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Taking a Day Off...

I'm one of those who is pretty much constantly talking about the "discipline" of writing.  Set a daily goal, meet it come hell or high water.  Set a routine and work work work.  And yet, there are days that, no matter how disciplined you are, the words just won't come.  So what do you do?  For many of us, we'll either work on another project (assuming we have one) or we'll stare intently at the blank page as the cursor blinks and mocks us with its happy little line.  Sometimes, we just begin writing, stream of consciousness, secure in the knowledge that, even if the thousand words we write today are crap, we can always go back and rewrite them, and tomorrow, that nasty case of writer's block will be gone.  The truth, however, is that many of us stare at the keyboard and slip slowly into madness as we blame everything in the world for our inability to form words.
Pictured:  Madness Personified

And that is the point of this week's essay.  Sometimes, you just have to take the day off.

Look, I get it.  You're serious about your craft.  This "writing" thing isn't a hobby… it's a career.  And you are dedicated.  Committed even.  However, like any job, if you become too serious about it, you will be.  Committed, I mean.  No, I'm not condoning slacking off.  And I'm not saying that this isn't a serious endeavor.  But what I am saying is that, even for the greatest writers in history, sometimes the words just don't come. 
Pictured:  Words!  Where are the words?
The tendency that we all lean toward is to barricade ourselves in our little caves lit only by the pale glow of our computer monitors and shun all life until something breaks in our brains to get the words out.  Hours may pass, or even days in which we eschew all rules of personal hygiene and social convention fearing that, should we leave our seat, the muse will alight and, finding us absent, depart without leaving so much as a piece of muse-shit on our chair.  We tell ourselves that we are dedicated.  We are artists.  We are writers.  And there's another word for that.


Pictured: Harold, the Hermit
You cannot force creativity.  You cannot force creativity.  You can develop all the tools you need to create the greatest book in the world, and still, some days, the words just won't come.  So what do you do?  Instead of sitting around and beating yourself up over it, you need first to forgive yourself. It happens to everyone.  Just like locking the keys in your car or moments where you just feel blah, it happens to everyone.  And it's nothing to blame yourself for.  It's nothing for which you should beat yourself up.  It happens.  The next thing you need to do is push the chair away from the keyboard, stand up and (Gods help you) go outside into the (cursed) sunlight.

Pictured:  Writer exposed to direct sunlight

Go out on a date.  See a movie.  Get a drink.  Go for a jog.  For pity's sake, go interact with people.  And whatever you do, do not talk about your work.  There is nothing writers like to do more than talk about their work.  In fact, many writers like talking about it so much, they rarely ever get down to actually doing it.  But for one evening, you're not a writer.  For one evening, you are going out masquerading as a "normal" person.  For one evening, you need to get out and actually enjoy life.  And then you'll notice a funny thing… When you get back, your writer's block will be gone.  It's true.  Because when you let go of that vice-like grip on your imagination, it relaxes and is allowed to flow again. 
Pictured:  FREEDOM!!!
Just remember:  don't make a habit of it.  Take your one night off, enjoy that burlesque show you've been hearing about.  Go home, get some sleep, and allow yourself to indulge for one night.  Feel that?  That weird thing that your face is doing?  That's called "smiling."  Then, the next day, plant your butt in your chair, and get back to work.  It was just a mini vacation, after all.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

This week, I'd like to just touch on a subject upon which every writer disagrees:  Background noise.  Of course, we don't say that.  We say "Do you write to music" or "I need complete silence" or "I can't write to music with words" or "have you ever heard of Cradle of Filth" or a thousand other things, but it all comes down to one thing:  Background noise.  None of us agree on it because nothing works for everyone.  I, for one, can only write when there's just a hint of activity in the rest of the house, or with music with no words that fit the mood I'm trying to achieve.  Here's an example:

That one generally works when I'm trying to write a scene that's supposed to be terrifying and intense.

That one generally doesn't.  Though it does make pretty much anything funny.

For some people, classical music is the way to go:

For others, Rock and Roll

For others, something… else…

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that it's all a matter of personal preference.  But, if you're using music or not, how can you make this work for you?  I recommend using headphones, if you can stand such things on your head while you're trying to concentrate.  Noise-cancelling headphones will… well… cancel out the outside noise that can invade your thought processes.  What that means is whether you're using them for listing to your own music, or using them to block out everyone else's, they work.

You could also try earplugs, but I find the things to be hateful and intrusive.

Pictured:  Hateful in blue, intrusive in yellow.
Since I'm not such a fan of either, I go with the old stand by…  My mp3 player (okay, fine… it's my iPhone) and a cheap pair of old computer speakers.

Check the pawn shop… It's where computer speakers go to die without dignity.

Again, the point here is not to say "you must write as I tell you…" but to say "this is how I  do it, and it works for me.  Might not work for you."  I think, if you're just starting out, you owe it to yourself to try as many methods as you can.  With music.  Without music.  With words, without.  Only songs containing a rocking oboe solo.  Only songs composed on a digeridoo.

Pictured:  Second most effective way to irritate EVERYONE.

You get my point, right?  Experiment!  Figure out what works for you, and run with it.  Adopt it as your own.  And if you already have some advice on the soundtrack of your writing life, leave it below in the comments!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Importance of Art

Art.  It's a word.  It's expression.  It's subjective.  Webster defines it as something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful, or that expresses important ideas or feelings.  So that means that practically anything can be considered art.  Paintings, sculpture, knitting, film, performance, and yes, even words. But that's just it… Why are these things important? 

I grew up in a land where "artists" were referred to as "artsy-fartsy" and were made fun of.  "You can't make a living with art," they said.  "An art degree is useless.  You'd be better off getting a degree in business/agriculture/computer science…"  In the world where I grew up, "art" was the realm of children and finger painters, sissies and overly-emotional twats that cried at the drop of a hat (and used pretentious words like "twat"), and the people who dared indulge in their creative side were mercilessly ridiculed and bullied.  Welcome to Redneck Texas.

To be fair, there's nothing wrong with blue-collar sensibilities.  Hell, if it weren't for those life-lessons, I wouldn't have the strong work-ethic that I have.  But where I grew up, there was a strong sense of practicality, and, let's face it, art is seldom practical. 

Pictured:  Awesome, yet impractical

The one saving grace that I had was in the first person to really encourage me to be creative:  My mother.  My father was the one who gave me my drive, my determination (some would say bull-headedness), and my ability to do just about anything I put my mind to.  But it was my mother, Nancy Johnson, who instilled upon me the notion that maybe I could create, and maybe it was worth something.  So, while on the one hand, I learned a great deal about the business of life, my mother taught me what living was about.  Does that make sense?  No?  Let me try to explain.

Pictured:  Your life.

Look at ants.  They live their lives doing a specific job.  Despite what Disney or Pixar tell us, they don't have much of an "off hours" life.  Ants work themselves until they die in a single-minded pursuit of getting their job done.  Why?  So that the next generation can get the job done.  And so on and so forth.  Now picture your life like that of an ant.  You go to work, put in your eight hours, go home, eat, and go to sleep, only to wake up the next morning and do it all again.  Now imagine it was seven days a week instead of five.  I mean, after all, that's what ants do.  And that's what people do when they get trapped in the ant-like cycle of their daily lives.  They work and work and work to make money, so they can buy things, that allow them to work more, so they can make money, so they can buy things…  You get the idea.  If you're like me, it would drive you mad.  

There's an old saying:  Work to live, but don't live to work.  Yes, we all need jobs.  We all need to make the almighty dollar so we can afford things like houses, cars, smart-phones and food.  We need the paycheck to keep our lights on and our bellies filled.  In short, we must work in order to live.  

But it is art that makes life worth living.  

Art is, at its basest level, an attempt at communicating something emotional to the audience.  It's a handshake between artist and audience.  It's the artist saying "This moves me.  I want you to understand why, and I want you to feel it too."  Think about that for a moment.  Think about the last song that brought you to tears.  Think about the last painting that left you breathless.  Think about the last story that terrified you or the last performance that inspired you to greatness.  What would you be doing without those things?  What would your world look like?  Grey?  

Pictured:  BLEH.

Artists are not common at all.  The world needs people who run the day-to-day, because without them the world falls apart.  But the world also needs artists because, without them, the rest of us fall apart.  We lose sight of our humanity.  We forget what it's like to feel.  We forget what beauty is, or what it means to be inspired.  Without artists, we forget why we have weekends off.  We lose the many inventions and innovations created because some creative genius asked "What if."  Without art, we lose our souls. 

The beauty of creation lies at the heart of an artist.  Whether it is born there or is bred from nurture, it is a fragile creature, too easily silenced and smothered by those who don't see the world the way we do.  We change with the ages, but our spirit remains the same.  We are the ones who ask "What if."  We work to live, but art is what makes life worth living for. 

Pictured:  A world worth living in.
If you happen to see an artist, be it a writer, dancer, sculptor, painter, musician, film maker, or any other of the millions of types of art out there…  If you happen to see one, recognize what you're looking at:  Someone who makes your existence bearable. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Reading Outside Your Genre

Stephen King, Clive Barker, and every other writer worth his ink has said that, in order to write, one must read.  Read the masters of your craft, read the people who inspire you to be better, read until your eyeballs bleed, then read some more.  Reading is your textbook.  The authors are your professors.  And you hope one day to take over the classroom for some other youngster, who thinks of you as a master of your craft.  It makes sense that you need to read as much as possible in your genre to understand the tropes, the nuances, the little things that are specific to your line of thought.  But I'm here to posit the opinion that it is just as important to read outside your genre as well.

My genre is horror.  I cut my teeth on Lovecraft, Poe, Matheson, Barker, Blackwood, and King.  I obsessively devour books by Braunbeck and Waggoner and adore anything that goes bump in the night.  But that's not all I read.  Reading only those things in my genre, believe it or not, stagnate the writer in my opinion.  Think about this:  Your life doesn't just hit one note, does it?  In any given day, you have moments of horror, comedy, history, passion, even sci-fi and fantasy.  So why should you limit yourself to just one genre?  Sure, you may treasure the moments of passion most in your day (or not… I don't really know you…), but if there is nothing but that, it soon becomes boring, doesn't it?  Variety is the spice of life, and of reading.

Pictured:  My reading shelf.  Also, epic sneeze in 3…2…1...

So here's my challenge to you.  Take a good long look at whatever your genre is.  Horror?  Sci-Fi?  Whatever.  Just take a look at it, then head over to your local mom-and-pop bookseller and pick up two novels that are not in that genre.  It helps if at least one of them is what you consider to be the polar opposite of your genre.  For example, if you prefer horror, pick up something in the YA field.  If you prefer Sci-Fi, pick up something of the old west or alt history.  If you write nothing but bunnies and rainbows, pick up something pretty gruesome and try to fight your way through it.

Why would I make that suggestion?  Because it will make you a better writer.  Everything you read influences you in some way, right?  You take pieces from everything around you and create your fantasy worlds from those patches of your experience.  Just like your life, just like every other thing in the world, nothing hits one note forever.  We are not a single ringing chord, but a symphony of experience.  We are a pentatonic scale of notes that crescendos and wanes.  And unless we want our sonata to be a symphony of one note, we must embrace the other instruments at our disposal.  To that end, below, I'm listing a few of my favorite novels that are not horror.  Leave a comment with some of your favorites below!

  • The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams (Sci-Fi, Comedy)
  • Storm Front:  Book One of the Dresden Files - Jim Butcher (Dark Urban Fantasy)
  • Dune - Frank Herbert (Sci-Fi)
  • The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien (Fantasy)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl (Childrens)
  • Rot and Ruin - Jonathan Mayberry (YA Horror)
  • Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich - Adam Rex (Childrens)
  • Dragonflight - Anne McCaffery (Fantasy)
  • Harpo Speaks - Harpo Marx (Biography)
And yes, I've read all of these.  That's the point.  You can't go through your writing career reading just one thing over and over.  I mean, you can, but it doesn't allow for much growth.  Different genres are there to tantalize you.  Don't pigeon-hole yourself.  Write your story and let it find its own audience.  Why limit yourself to just one genre, when there are whole worlds out there for you to discover?

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Piano Player and the Writer

There's an old story that floats around, one that rings true to me and to every artist, about what it takes to succeed.  I'll tell it the best I can.

A professional concert pianist sat in a hotel lobby behind the keys of a grande piano, and began to play from memory.  He played classical music by Motzart, then moved to jazz, then to boogie-woogie, then back to classical.  He ended his near-hour-long impromptu set with a melancholy piece that moved some to tears.  When he was done, a man approached him.  "I'd give anything to be able to play like that," said the man.  "I have," said the pianist.

What does that mean to me, the writer?  What does that mean to any artist?  It means that what we do is no matter of wishing, no fluke of nature, no whim or hobby.  It is serious.  Our art, whatever it is, is our lives.  Think about that for a moment.  Think of the time you spend watching television, or becoming addicted to another mini-series.  Think of the time you spend on video games or other endeavors.  Think of the things you do to occupy your time.

Now imagine them all gone, replaced with a single overriding thought.  A drive.  A passion.

That is what it means to be a writer.

What the pianist meant by "I have" was, instead of doing other things, his drive was to practice.  His drive was to drill.  His passion for music stole him away from other endeavors.  Not that there was anything wrong with the other activities, they just weren't his passion.  They weren't his muse.  They didn't fill him up the way music did.

The same holds true for writers.  How many times have you, the writers who are reading this, been told by someone (friend, co-worker, demon from hell who is intent on you never writing another word) "oh you have to watch this new series…" or "I'm sending you a link to this on Netflix…It's only got three seasons."  How many times have you heard "but you haven't come out of your writing room/hole/cave/hovel/insert-derogatory-term-here in hours/days/weeks/who the hell are you?"  How many times have your friends not understood your need for isolation?  If you're not a writer, and you're reading this, how many times have you wondered "is something wrong with…" because he often disappears into his or her office and closes the door?  Do you honestly think we don't know?  Do you honestly think we don't care?

The perfect television.

We do.  But that's just it.  We care.  We care enough about our art to sacrifice things like television shows that we don't need, video game time when we should be writing, internet porn when our characters call to us.  It's not that we're too good for television, but we have other priorities.  Or, and this is often the case, they just don't interest us.  I know it's almost blasphemous to say in the modern age, but for some of us, we just aren't interested in the latest sitcom, TV drama, or reality program.  It makes it hard for us to meet people, difficult for us to socialize.  Deep down, wherever we are, we'd rather be writing.  We'd rather be torturing your characters with tense situations and embarrassing moments.  When the laugh-track comes from inside our own heads, it's so much better.

Every now and again, someone comes up to me and says "I'd give anything to have as many books published as you" or "I'd give anything to write a novel."

I have.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

And Now, a Bit of Practical Advice...

Everyone who has one of these "blog" thingies (that's a technical term) likes to dole out advice on deepening the character and how to avoid mistakes in the craft.  I'm as guilty of the next guy of wafting my own brand of sage-like wisdom your direction.  But this week, I feel the need to talk about something much more important than any of that.  Well, maybe not more important, but at least as important.  We'll start with a story. 

Once upon a time, there was a writer.  This guy (we'll call him Scott) lived in an area where a large storm hit.  The wind howled, thunder boomed, and his cable modem crapped out.  Big deal, you say?  Well it was to him.  See, Scott was a hundred pages into his new novel, which was coming along nicely, but he saved his work to a network cloud drive.  So when his cable modem crapped out, he could no longer access his work.  After a quick and desperate search, Scott realized, to his horror, that he'd neglected to back up his work in another file.  
Pictured:  Scott without internet access.

The story has a good ending… Scott's cable company replaced the modem the next day, and he was back in business, but there is a moral to this story:


Look, I make my trade in telling stories that terrify.  But the one thing that scares me more than (almost) anything is the thought of losing my work.  That's months I'll never get back again.  Weeks of oreos and alcohol that will need to be replicated.  That is also what we writers know by two names:  First is "The Big Suck."  The second is "Your Own Damned Fault."  

Back in the days before computers and printers (I'm not that old, but I do know people who are old enough to remember these days…), a type written thesis or book was treated like gold.  Hard copy was something treasured, and to protect it,  the "backup" method was to wrap it in plastic wrap (or butcher paper) and place a copy in the freezer.  This way, if the house burned down, there was still a chance it would be safe.  I wish I were making that part up, but it's true.  

So here's my suggestion to you.  Three copies (or more) of everything.  Here's my current storage solution:

  1. Working file on the cloud drive - I use "Dropbox" because it's free, and because it allows me to access the same file over multiple devices.  iPad, laptop, desktop, work desktop (shhhhhh!), it doesn't matter.  I can get to my file wherever I need to.  
  2. Working File on the desktop - My home desktop has a file on it that is title "WIP" for Works In Progress.  That's the file I typically open when I'm working on a project (hence the whole "working file" thing).  When I'm done working for the night, I put a copy of it into the cloud drive. 
  3. Backup File on USB - Yeah, I'm one of those writers who often carries his entire catalogue of work around with him on a USB drive.  They're cheap, they are almost incorruptible (my brother dropped one in a baby bottle full of formula and didn't lose any information), and they're small.  When I'm done writing for, say, a week or if I'm traveling, I'll use this file.  Let's say, for example, I'm in some jackass hotel that doesn't have wi-fi or wants to charge extra for it.  No worries.  I have my jump drive. I'll save a copy of what's on my USB drive onto whatever computer I happen to be using, and I'm back in business.  The file on the USB is not changed until I'm damned sure I'm done with it for the evening. 
    It's a transformer!
    Thumb drive.  Whamp whamp whaaaaaaamp!
  4. E-Mail - Yeah, it's a little paranoid and old-school, but I've also been known to save finished copies of complete manuscripts by e-mailing a copy to myself.  I set up a smart folder of where everything funnels in my system.
  5. The Dark Archive - No, it's not a basement dungeon filled with little goblins who obsessively file my paperwork (I wish!).  It's actually a two-part system.  One is a second USB drive that only contains finished copies of my work.  The second is a burned CD with only the finished copy of my work.  
    Pictured:  The Dark Archive
So that's it.  That's my backup scheme.  It's a little obsessive, I know, but it's saved my bacon several times.  Here's the other thing:  You must remain dedicated to it.  A backup plan only works if you stick to it.  make it part of your daily writing routine.  
Pictured:  Smug invulnerability.

Share your backup plan in the comments!

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Writing Process

Every time someone learns what I do, I get the question of "but how?" along with bewildered looks.  I also get the inevitable string of "I have a great idea…" or "I keep thinking I'm going to write a book someday…"  But the question of "how" is always the one that seems simple to answer, but really isn't.

The simple answer is "put ass in chair and fingers to keyboard and get to it."  But there's actually a lot more to the writing process than that.  So I thought I'd take this opportunity (it being my blog and all) to describe the process I go through to write a story (Book-length, novella, short… It doesn't matter.  The process is the same.) in hopes that maybe it'll help some aspiring writer, or that others might realize that their own process isn't that bizarre.  Keep in mind, this is just my process, and there is no "correct" way to do this.  This is what works for me.

Step One: The Idea - Ideas come from anywhere.  Things I see, things I hear, something I ate just before I went to bed, some random bit of disturbing flotsam that comes up in a conversation… There's no telling where they come from.  I seem to live in a different world than most people, as writers do.  Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to see the things we do and write what we do.  So, for example, while walking across campus, I see a large grouping of squirrels.  Fluffy-tailed rats on meth, that's what I call them.  And as I walk by, one lifts his fuzzy head and glares at me.  Big deal, right?  But… What if they all did it.  In unison.  And they they stared as I walked past?  How creepy would that be?  Why would they do that?  What could control a bunch of crack-addled rats with such a hive mind?  Holy shit, why are they staring at me?  What do they want?  

Pictured:  Pure Unadulterated EVIL

Once that sense of dread has taken a good firm root in my psyche and I obsess over it for a few days, I move on to step two.

Step Two:  Brainstorming - Also known as daydreaming or mucking about while you get your head around the story idea.  See, the fuzzy bastards that stood up and stared… why would they do that?  Well, now's the point where I come up with my story.  Having a group of squirrels stand up and stare at you is creepy, but there's not really a story there, is there?  Why they stared…Ah, now there's the story. It's usually during this point that I'll start researching squirrels, mind control, magic, demons, and any other thing that possibly jumps into my head when I think of squirrels.  It's also about this time that I'll start driving my friends insane with weird questions about "have you ever seen a squirrel?" and "don't they creep you out?" and "what if..?" and "would you rather fight one horse-sized squirrel or a hundred squirrel-sized horses?"  and other things that insure they'll become uncomfortable and leave me alone for a few weeks until this new obsession wears off.  It is also this stage that insures that, while I don't have many friends, the ones I do are incredibly resilient and often live in the same cockamamy fantasy world that I do.  Or at least they don't mind visiting from time to time.

Step Three:  The Draft - This is the point where I'll actually put butt to chair and fingers to keys and bask in the cold pale glow of my computer as I begin to type out my opus.  I will spend hours and many late nights working on this singular idea until I'm sick of it (more on that later), often neglecting my own sleep habits and health to do so.  One thing I never do is neglect my family.  My daughter comes first, always.  So she has this annoying habit of wanting to eat or something, so I first feed her.  Then I make sure her day is complete with everything she needs.  Homework?  Check.  Parental interaction?  Check.  Dinner?  Checkity-check.  Then she goes for her nightly shower, and that's when Dad can become the writer.  I set my goal (1000 words) and stick to it.  This is where the late nights and sleep deprivation begins.

Step Four:  The Loathing - There comes a point where all us writers look at what we're writing and think "this is the dumbest thing ever."  We'll want to throw it away, trash the file, and forget we ever had such a goof-ball idea as a bunch of mind-controlled crack-rats.  But, because I've already come so far, I push on to the end, which leads to the next type of loathing.  Type one is "Loathing of the Material" or "Matloathing," if you will.  Type two is "Self-Loathing," in which all writers think "the idea is great, but I'm not good enough to write it."  It is not uncommon for writers to be found under their respective desks with a plate of Oreos or/and a bottle of rum to comfort them at this stage.

Pictured:  Actual Thoughts

Step Five:  Determined Resignation - The cookies are gone, the rum is drunk, and there it sits… The cursor on the screen.  It blinks.  It mocks.  It taunts.  The writer's temper flairs as he climbs out from under his desk and say "GODDAMMIT, THIS IS MY STORY!"  In his mind, trumpets blare and lightning crashes as he plants his butt back in his chair and attacks his keyboard.  Every stroke is hit with such force that the keyboard might explode beneath its power.  Every word is carefully considered with determination.  Every negative thought is met with hatred and spite.  He may smile during this phase.  He may cackle maniacally.  He might even shout at the screen.  But he continues on, maimed but not crippled.  Hurt but not beaten.  He works with manic abandon until, at long last, he types the words "the end."

Step Six:  Masochism - Also known as "peer review."  There is no more humbling an act that that of throwing something you've written out into the wild to have others (whose opinions you trust and respect) rip it to shreds.  Your brilliant opus then turns into a page that drips with ink-blood and lays coughing on your desk.  Do you have the faith, the fortitude to try to save it, or do you just let it die and lament its passing?  This is also where Oreos and Rum come back into play.

Step Seven:  Rewrites - Of course you're going to try to save it.  Why wouldn't you?  So you repeat steps three-through-six.  Sometimes multiple times until you get to…

Step Eight:  Submission - Your opus is perfect, beautiful in every way, and now it's time to throw it out into the wild to let the world know how brilliant you are.  You choose your venues carefully (often with a dart and a page from "Writers Market") and begin to send.  Then you wait.  As you wait, doubt creeps into your head and prompts you for more Oreos and Rum.  What if no one likes it?  What if you really are just a hack?

Pictured:  Writer in her natural habitat

Step Nine:  Rejection - Any writer will tell you that rejection is part of our way of life.  It's true.  It's also why a very large percentage of us suffer from depression and deep psychological disorders.  And yet, we keep doing it.  We keep throwing ourselves out there screaming "love me!" at the top of our lungs, and a cold world whispers back "no."

Step Ten:  Acceptance - The step that makes all of the preceding nine worth every moment.  The moment when the magic envelope (or e-mail) arrives that says, yes, we are good enough.  We are loved.


And that's my process.  What's yours?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Happy Birthday Zoe!

 I'm taking a break from the writing advice and such for this post because today is an important day.  It's one of the most important days of my life.  I can count those days on the fingers of one hand, but this one?  This one is in the top three.  Fourteen years ago, on this day, my youngest daughter was born.

When she was born, I cried.  I held her in my arms for the first time and, no kidding, she snuggled up to me.  It was the greatest feeling I've ever had.  Also the most terrifying.  I mean, what if I messed up?  What if I didn't teach her well?  What if she grew up to not like me?  What if I'd never have that feeling again?  But I took her home, held her in my arms, and sat back in my easy chair with my little girl on my chest.  There's a picture of that moment floating around somewhere.

I've watched her grow from a goofy kid into a goofy young woman, and all my fears are laid to rest daily.

Pictured:  Goofy Young Woman

You know those parents who unashamedly think their children do no wrong?  Who dote over their kids?  Who truly believe their kid is the most talented, wonderful, intelligent, beautiful, etc. etc. etc?


If I could've gone to the "kid factory" and chosen the specific features and characteristics of the kid I would have, those custom bits would've combined to the child I have today.  Seriously.  I mean, she has my sense of humor, she's whip-smart, she sings, writes, has a morbid fascination with horror movies, and loves to be driven around on the motorcycle by her dad (that's me!).  People who don't like children love Zoe for some reason, and I know what it is.  She gets it from her mother.  The old saying "To know her is to love her?"  Yeah, Tabby had that.  And Zoe inherited it.

For the rest of my life, no matter how many books I publish, what rank I achieve in Kajukenbo, how many bizarre skills I master, what awards I win, there is at least one constant:  All of them pale in comparison to my Zoe.

Happy Birthday, sweetie.  I love you so much.

Pictured:  Best Kid in Existence

Monday, March 17, 2014

Creating Sacred Space

While opinions often vary, and there is no one right way to follow this career path, I'm of the opinion that writers need their own space.  Whether it's a room with a spectacular view or one with no windows, blank walls or covered in inspirational art, a writer needs to have a place where the muse speaks to him or her.  I'm not saying you must consecrate your space with white sage and candles (but if you do, more power to you), but writers need to have a space all their own.  At least, I do.

For many, it's a particular end of the couch.  For others, it's the kitchen table.  I can't work in such conditions.  Nothing against those who can, it's just not for me.  When I write, I need quiet.  I need solitude.  I need to be left the hell alone so my creativity can jump from the ether to my heart, from my heart to my brain, from my brain to my fingers and from my fingers to the page.  I was fortunate enough to have someone who understood my need, and who indulged me by allowing me to stake out areas of the house and claim them as my "office."  And from day one, the moment my desk goes into the room, it belongs to me and me alone.  And my children, my friends, and anyone who ventures into my home knows that my writing room is holy ground to me.  It's a place where I can be me and entertain my most depraved thoughts without judgement.  A place where everything is where I put it, and where nothing is moved or added without my say-so.

Yes, for the record, I am aware that I sound like an egomaniacal bastard and an absolute nightmare with whom to live.  I accept that.  I don't feel it's true, but that's not the point of this article.

So what's in my sacred space?  What makes my office mine?  What makes my little room an area where the muse can speak to me?

First off, there's the door.  I can close it if I need to and I know no one will disturb me.  For me, a door is crucial to the solitude that I crave to get stories written.  Second, the walls are adorned with art by friends and family, certificates of accomplishment, gargoyles and hats.  I even have a pro-wrestling championship belt on one wall, with the Golden Crackpipe award (long story) on another.    I have a leather easy chair, which is usually occupied by Owen, and the great glass desk that I keep meaning to have replaced.   But the real secret to my office is in my shelves.

Oh, my shelves.  Keepers of arcane knowledge and inspiration the likes of which the world has never seen.  One shelf holds only books by me and by my friends and former students.  Another contains reference materials on witchcraft, ghosts, demons, monsters, and other religions.  But then, there are things that, to look at them, one wouldn't know what to think.  There are shelves in my office that contain memories from my adventures in writing and in life, things I've made and things that were given to me.  The top shelf contains real, honest to Legba, Mojo Bag, made by a vodoun priestess.  The shelf below contains candles, daggers, incense and a bottle of "Coffin Liquor," made by my dear Tabby and given to me.

And amid the other shelves and their contents of sonic screwdrivers, pro wrestling memorabilia, statues of Chaplain and Harpo and my hand-made replica of the Necronomicon (yes, really), there is a special shelf.  One that makes me smile whenever upon it I look.  On this shelf is a bottle of tears, an alligator's head, a venus fly-trap, a big-ass piece of candy corn, monster cars and innumerable other items that hold special meaning for me.  They are things given to me by former students.  Treasures that I hold more sacred than gold.  I look at each of them and I know from where they all came.  I know the names and the faces, and I draw inspiration from them.  My very first student, Betsy Whitt, gave me a miniature horse blanket, named "Horse Thrall."  It hangs on my wall just above my computer where I can see it when I look up.  Are there things I treasure more than others?  I'd be lying if I said no.  But every piece in the collection has a meaning for me, and every piece represents another person who touched my life and who pushes me on.  Every time I get knocked down, I picture them all doing their best impressions of Burgess Merideth, screaming "Get up, you son of a bitch!  Because Mickey loves you!"

And that's the point, I suppose.  My office, my sacred space, is a place that energizes me.  The ghosts of stories past and of stories yet to come live there, and when I am within her walls, they speak to me.  They speak only to me.  The things in this room mean nothing to anyone but me.  And so, for everyone else, it's just a room full of my junk that this old fool won't let anyone touch.  But to me, it's Wonderland.  It's my sacred space because in here, I can touch the gods.

Leave a comment.  Tell us about your sacred space.  Let us know how you work.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Surviving the Con

If you are a writer (and, let's face it, if you're reading this, you probably either are or want to be), you will eventually be faced with one of the most terrifying and wonderful experiences an introvert can have:  The Convention.  It doesn't matter what your genre is, there is a convention dedicated to it.  Don't believe me?  Google it.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

Satisfied?  Good.  Let's move on.

Writers use conventions to sell their books and meet their audience.  While most of us would be happy never having to leave our dark little caves, the reality is that you'll need to get out and shake hands, press the flesh, and use good will to try to get some new fans.  You can only sell books to friends and family for so long.  Eventually, you need to get the word out about your work if you intend to have a sustained career.  To that end, I'd like to give you a few pointers about how to make it through your convention experience with as little emotional or physical trauma as possible.  Keep in mind, this is for you AS A GUEST or a vendor, not as someone who goes to the conventions.  That's a whole 'nuther issue for a later post.

First off, you want to come across as professional.  Easier said than done.  Dress the part, yes, but don't costume yourself out.  Remember, a little goes a long way.  For my convention wear, I have a fairly standard "uniform."  I wear a nice black shirt (usually a work shirt or a button-down), blue jeans, motorcycle boots (because I always wear motorcycle boots or converse, and my boots make me taller.  Don't laugh.), and possibly a red tie.  The colors I wear are almost always black and red.  I often wear a tie-tack that is a small (subtle) brain if I'm wearing a tie, but other than that, you have my typical look.  If I wrote steam-punk, I might consider a pin on my lapel made from gears and cogs.  If I wrote sci-fi, I would pick some other subtle piece that denoted my passion for that genre (in my case, most likely my Serenity pin that reads "I aim to misbehave.") without being too ostentatious.  On the other hand, if I'm going to be formal (and we're talking really formal), I wear my kilt with a black button up shirt, red tie, black vest, and a black sporran.  Why?  Because I'm proud of my Scottish heritage, and that's my formal wear.  It sets me apart from other people, but doesn't come across as a costume.  If you dress in a somewhat flamboyant manner all the time, then go with it.  The point is, be comfortable because people can tell when you "dressed up" and when you are being real.

World Horror, 2013, with Kristin Dearborn and Tim Waggoner

Second, let's talk about your table.  The tables are usually of the six-foot long variety, and you may or may not have to share it with someone.  If you don't, you have plenty of room to spread out your wares.  If you do, conservation of space along with division of property is key.  Decoration of your table is a good thing, but again, I prefer to go with subtlety.  The last thing you want is for people to walk by your table and not know who or what you are.  For me, the books should be the focus.  I arrange them at several different levels, making sure that each title is clearly visible from the front, and that I can move them without knocking the others down.  If you have only one book, you have less to worry about.  If you have more than one (13 here), you need to arrange them so they complement each other.  Parts of a series go together.  Chronological order (when they were published) should be considered.  But of great importance is also whether or not someone walking by can see YOU.  Set your books up so they frame you, rather than hide you.

Pictured:  Owen, my seat saver, with books and stuff.

I said I like to use a few subtle decorations.  Over the years, I've used everything from gargoyles to Owen (my creepy doll that sits in my chair when I run off to do a signing or go on a bathroom break).  Owen still goes with me, but I've refined my decorations.  I carry with me a cup that looks like a pile of skulls (it's actually a toilet brush holder, but no one usually knows that, and it's only been used in conventions as a…) for a candy dish, a small coffin (about six inches long) to hold business cards (more on this in a moment), and some other receptacle for sharpies.  I also bring my own table cloths because I don't trust that the convention venue will provide them, and if they do, they're usually dirty and white. I carry with me one extra large satin black tablecloth (which can be folded for size constraints) and a round spiderweb table cloth (a gift from my mother).

I mentioned the candy dish.  Fill it with Jolly Ranchers.  Not chocolate, not mints, not anything generic.  Jolly Ranchers.  Why?  Because everyone loves them, no one is allergic to them, they keep forever, and you can buy them in bulk.  Jolly Ranchers attract people to your table.  Everyone wants a freebie from every table, and if you have Jolly Ranchers, you hit the "must visit" list.  I buy bags of them from Sam's Club and keep my candy dish full.

Note the candy dish on the left?  Also, this is an example of a non-cluttered table.

I mentioned, also, business cards.  Folks, they are the single best investment from a promotional standpoint that you can make.  Design them yourself or have someone design them, but make them look professional.  And they are not expensive at all.  I use GotPrint,  and I get 1000 glossy-front, color front, black and white back business cards for about $20.  Seriously.  And I pass them out everywhere I go.  Make sure it has your name, e-mail, website, and something identifying on it, but for $20, you can't go wrong.

Pictured:  Something Identifying

I also make sure to have a banner for myself.  I carry a small wooden easel upon which to hang it, and also carry duct tape for wall hanging.  A banner should announce your name and have some identifying characteristic on it (like your business card), and they too can be done cheaply.  You can get one that you can use over and over again from the same company (that's GotPrint, btw) for about $40.  You can also get them from your local Kinko's, or even from a buddy at a university with access to a plotter.

You also need a change box (with enough money to make change), a receipt book (because some people insist on them) and a clearly marked price list.  Do not short-sell your books.  Make deals, sure, package them together, but make sure you are not selling them at cost.  Make the trip worth your while.  You should also get a card-reader for your smartphone so you can take credit cards.  Companies like Square allow you to process credit cards, send out virtual receipts, and charge a very small percentage.

Finally, let's talk about you.  When I go to conventions, I usually see two types of people.  The first hides behind his books (iPad, smart phone, etc).  Whenever people walk by, they act like they don't notice, or pray not to be noticed.  The second is the wolf… The one who is obviously there to sell things.  The one who, as the convention progresses, gets more and more desperate to sell.  It it shows.  That person reeks of desperation.  You should strive to be a third type:  The personable vendor.  You make eye contact.  You smile.  You say "how's it going."  You have your one-line-synopsis ready if they ask, but you're more there to meet folks and shake hands.  When people approach you, they're interested in meeting you.  In fact, what you're selling at your table isn't a book.  It's you.  And you are your most valuable commodity.

When you're at the convention, be nice to everyone.  Be professional, but come across as you would want them to remember you.  Be nice to the other vendors because they'll share tips and send other people your way.  Be nice to the promoters because they want you to come back.  Be nice to the fans because you want them to be your audience, and you never know who you are talking to.  Be.  Nice.

Lastly, whether you're booked to do a reading or not, have something prepared, just in case.  The motto of the Boy Scouts is the rule here:  Be Prepared.

So that's it.  Those are my tips for surviving the con.  Do you have any that you'd like to share?  Leave them in the comments!  Until next time, see you on the road!