Why I Chose a Traditional Publisher

Guest Blogger: Nathan Bransford

One of the more common questions I receive in interviews and the like is this one: You have a blog, you were in the business by virtue of being a former literary agent, why didn’t you self-publish? Why didn’t you do it on your own? Couldn’t you have made more money self-publishing?

I know there are lots of people out there asking themselves whether they should go through the potentially months- or years-long finding-an-agent-and-then-a-publisher process or just get right to it and self-publish. But I decided to go the traditional route with Penguin for a two book deal (JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW and JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE), and I’m very pleased to announce that we finalized a third, tentatively titled JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE INTERSTELLAR TIME WARP!!

So why did I choose a traditional publisher? Many many reasons.

They are…

My Editor is Amazing

Having a professional editor in your corner is indispensable, and here’s the part where I give heap tons of well-deserved praise on my amazing editor, Kate Harrison, who understood and believed in WONDERBAR from the start. Kate has a ton of experience, I trust her instincts and editorial eye, and she is deeply committed to making every book as good as it can possibly be.

We went through pretty extensive revisions for COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, and I think they resulted in a much stronger book.

I Don’t Have Time to be a Self-Published Author

I have a very full-time job that I am deeply committed to and a blog that takes up a good chunk of my free time. I don’t have time to hire an editor, hire a copyeditor, hire an illustrator, hire a cover artist, buy ISBNs, make sure the formatting is right for all the various editions, choose trim size, write cover copy, and all of the other seven billion tasks that go into making a book.

I write, I do the bloggy things, I do the Twitter and the Facebook, and Penguin handles the making-of-the-book thing. Better still? Penguin does a fabulous job. I love my illustrator, I love my cover, the interior looks amazing. They did a way better job at all of that than I could have done on my own.

Print is Still Where It’s At, Especially for Children’s Books

Yes, this balance will continue to change as we move into the e-book world. But as I articulated in a post a few months back, this is still a print world. Even with the exponential rise of e-books we’re still somewhere between 65-80% print, and perhaps even a bit more for children’s books. Parents aren’t exactly rushing out to buy their 8-12 year-olds e-readers.

That may well change in the next five years. But for now? Print is still where it’s at. And if you want to get into bookstores you need a publisher.

I Appreciate Penguin’s Cachet

A few years back I honestly don’t know that the average consumer really knew the difference between a traditionally published and self-published book. If it was bound it was a book. Who cares what name was on the spine?

Now though, in the past year or two I feel like I’ve noticed a subtle change. People will hear I have a book coming out and I’ll see them squint, and they’ll say cautiously, “Oh, really? Who’s it with?” Then when I say Penguin the reaction is different.

This isn’t to take anything away from self-published authors, many of whom are really really great writers and who I know are very hard at work bucking that skepticism. It’s nothing personal at all, I just think being associated with an established brand helps.

An Advance

Yes, in the long run maybe I could have made more money self-publishing. Then again, maybe I couldn’t. Maybe I would have made ten bucks. Who knows.

But hey. When you get an advance you can literally take it to the bank.

And finally…

I Believe in the Traditional Publishing Process

Having worked in publishing I have a deep appreciation for the professionalism of publishers. They are in the book-making trenches. They know what works, they love words, they are eating, sleeping and breathing books.

Now, I don’t think the traditional publishing process is for everyone, and I don’t consider myself an advocate for either traditional or self-publishing. But for me? When my writing career is getting started? I really appreciate having a professional editor who is invested in the outcome of my book. I appreciate the expertise of the designers and the marketers and the sales team and all the people who help make the process work smoothly.

As I alluded to in some recent interviews, traditional publishing is a collaborative process. The author doesn’t have total control. I’m okay with that, in fact I appreciate it and I think it’s resulted in a better book than I could have produced on my own. Other authors may want more autonomy. It’s important to know who you are.

Nathan Bransford is the author of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, published by Dial Books for Young Readers. He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., but is now a publishing civilian working in the tech industry. He lives in San Francisco.

Monsters Who Have Touched Our Hearts

For WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, we interviewed tons of experts about the struggle of good vs evil in film, comics, pop culture, world myth, literature, and the real world. Here’s what some of them have to say about which monsters in film or mythology touched their hearts.

DOUG SCHOONER—King Kong was always my favorite. He was taken away from what he knew, his home and life to a place where he was a monster, a novelty and a tragic victim of his captors. The love story is there to humanize the beast so we can relate better with his loss and solidify the monster to our own perspectives. Most great stories involve a monster who is a hero and a hero who is a monster.

DOUG JONES—Frankenstein’s monster is about as sympathetic as it gets, I think. This poor fellow wakes up on a table to realize he’s been built with spare parts and is an immediate outcast of whom people are terrified. I woke up feeling that way almost every day of high school.

ELLEN DUBIN—I was obsessed with Greek mythology in college. I always had a soft spot for the characters that were misfits, like the Greek god Hephaestus (Roman equivalent Vulcan). I was fascinated by the fact that he was the only god exiled from Mt Olympus because he was born lame, deformed and ugly. A monster in the eyes of his mother and father, they threw him off the mountain nine days after his birth! But irony of ironies, he eventually created the magnificent metalwork and intricate equipment of the gods. Beauty was created by that “beast”. Ping go the strings of my heart! King Kong and Quasimodo both had that same affect on me.

CHAD SAVAGE—I think we all felt sorry for Frankenstein’s monster, and I remember as a kid feeling bad for Godzilla at the end of GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA. Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED is an excellent examination of “what defines a monster”, as the humans are far more dangerous than the so-called monsters; same goes for Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. I also found myself rooting for Natasha in Tim Lebbon’s BERSERK.

KELLY J. COMPEAU—Frankestein’s monster. That poor, pathetic creature never had a chance in the face of such superstitious fear and intolerance. I also feel that Count Dracula is deeply misunderstood. The guy just can’t get a break!

BRIAN PATRICK O’TOOLE—The original GODZILLA was the film that taught me that good and evil was not as black and white as they were made out to be in church. I was about five or six years old when I caught GODZILLA showing on WGN-TV Chicago’s “Creature Features”. By the end of the film, I was a crying mess. I remember my mother saying, “What are you so upset about?  They got the monster.” I turned to her, tears turning to anger, and screeching, “Godzilla was just going home. It’s not his fault people put up buildings where he used to live.” And from that moment on, I watched horror/sci-fi/fantasy films, looking for the heart of their story. Frankenstein’s Monster didn’t ask to be created. King Kong didn’t ask to be brought to New York. The Mummy was simply protecting his Queen. The Werewolf was cursed. The shark in JAWS was just feeding. Zombies were just following their basic instincts. In every film I make, I am highly aware of the “heart” of the story I am trying to tell. That was something I learned from GODZILLA.

Meet the Experts:

Doug Schooner is an artist who also plays guitar and writes.

Doug Jones is an actor who plays ‘Abe Sapien’ in the Hellboy films, among other works.

Ellen Dubin portrayed Giggerota the Wicked on LEXX and appeared in THE COLLECTOR, Highlander: The Raven, and Forever Knight

Chad Savage is the artist behind Sinister Visions inc., a full-service visual design studio catering to the horror, Halloween and haunted house industries.

Kelly J. Compeau is creator, head writer and art director of THE BLACK TOWER, a dark, intense interactive webcomic series, set in present day New York City

Brian Patrick O’Toole is a screenwriter and independent producer whose works include DOG SOLDIERS and CEMETERY GATES. He writes the monthly HORRORCADE column for FANGORIA magazine.

For more on the struggle between good vs. evil, check out WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE , nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman. It includes interviews with folks like Stan Lee, Mike Mignola, Jason Aaron, Fred Van Lente, Peter Straub, Charlaine Harris and many more; and the book is fully illustrated by top horror, comics & fantasy artists

Writing is Never Routine

Guest Blogger: Norb Vonnegut

Many people ask about my “writing routine.” I think they expect to hear stories about a cone of silence—about me shutting the door on sounds or emails or any one of the million distractions that conspire to make authors unproductive. Well, the truth is I like a little noise. I listen to classic blues while working. And sometimes writing is anything but routine.

There was the time, for example, when killer bees ate my book. Sounds hyperbolic, right? Maybe, but it’s true. I was sitting in my office several years ago when 5,000 bald-faced hornets broke through the ceiling. A large clump dropped from above, landed on my desk with a resounding thud, and buried my first novel in a waxy substance that I can only describe as “gak.” Then, the hornets came for me.

That experience was far from ordinary. My office is usually the sanctuary where I dream up crazy ways to whack fictional characters, like the shark scene in Top Producer or the bedroom murder in The Gods of Greenwich. But before that day was over, I called for reinforcements. A guy wearing a moon suit and scuba tanks of insecticide rescued my family from the swarms. I’ve described the grizzly details on my website if you want to learn more.


Let’s go back to the cone of silence. The truth is I start writing at 8:00 every morning and flog myself until there are 1,000 new words on the page. Authors wouldn’t be authors without the pain, right? But I really detest regimens. And I develop my best ideas during research, the times when I’m out and about, talking to the FBI or doing any of the other things that find their way into a novel.

While writing The Gods of Greenwich, I spent hours talking to bartenders at Connecticut watering holes. You wouldn’t believe the stories that surface around eleven pm on Wednesdays, a time when most everybody else has gone home. That’s when I learned about the “divorce suite,” a $1,700/night hotel room in Greenwich where the gods check in on their way out. You’ll learn more in Chapter Twenty-Seven.

Then there’s hákarl, which is fermented shark, an Icelandic delicacy, sort of. I could never describe this dish by sitting in a cone of silence—fantasizing about how bad the fish smells or how miserable it tastes. My wife and I spent a great week in Reykjavik back in 2006. And while I don’t endorse hákarl, you’ll see why in The Gods of Greenwich, I promise that you’ll find great adventure in Iceland and quality experiences that strengthen backstories on the printed page.

Right now, I’m feverishly working on a third book between speaking engagements. It will hit the shelves during the summer of 2012, but these days writing is on the fly. I’m grabbing chunks of time wherever they surface, in the airports waiting for a flight, or at a library before speaking to patrons. And still, there’s my old friend research. It was just last month that I was walking through an adult superstore in New Haven, counting the floor tiles to gauge the size of the facility.

Yeesh, the things writers do.

One last thing. I love the poem, The Thousandth Man by Rudyard Kipling. And some of Kipling’s themes are working their way into my next novel. I’ve toyed with the notion of naming it The Thousandth Man in tribute to him. But it’s too hard to say “Thousandth.”

What do you think about “The Thousand Man”? Would you pick up a book with that title?

NORB VONNEGUT writes financial thrillers and non-fiction commentary (The Huffington Post, Acrimoney) about Wall Street behind closed doors. He has appeared on Bloomberg, Judith Regan, and the Laura Ingraham shows. Top Producer, his debut novel, was a featured pick on Today and one of Smart Money’s seven must-read books for the fall of 2009. His follow-up thriller, The Gods of Greenwich, takes place in the high-rolling world of hedge funds and was released on April 26, 2011.

Vonnegut brings a unique insider’s perspective to his writing. Before turning to color commentary on Wall Street, he built his wealth management career with Morgan Stanley and other financial institutions. He graduated from Harvard College in 1980 and earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1986. He is a member of the Board of Trustees for the American Foundation for the Blind. He divides his time between New York and Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife and two children and bicycles whenever possible.

From Zombies to Bigfoot and Back Again

Guest Blogger: Eric S Brown

Around ten years ago, I picked up the pen for the first time as a serious writer.  Back in those days, zombies weren’t the icon of pop culture they are today.  Zombies were a hard sale.  At one point, I was even banned from submitting to a major online fiction publication because their editor claimed zombies were stupid, cliché, and not scary at all.  Zombies have came a long way since then and so have I.  I knew in my heart that I loved zombies and they were what I wanted to write.  My first ever sale was a zombie story and I stuck with those rotting, hungry monsters for the long haul.  I always said I was writing because first and foremost I was a zombie fan who wanted to give something back to the genre that I grew up loving.  The zombie movement grew and I was there as they climbed they their way to the top of horror once more with books like Brian Keene’s THE RISING and films like 28 DAYS LATER and the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD.  I was true to myself and it paid off but even if zombies hadn’t swarmed the world I wouldn’t have stopped writing them.

There’s an old saying “write what you know or at least what you love”.  That’s something I have always done.  Over 30 books and chapbooks later with hundreds of published stories and even going mass market, I still believe those words.  If you enjoy what you’re writing about most likely the reader will feel your passion and enjoy it too.

Of late, I have strayed from zombie fiction because something else I loved  which scared me as much as zombies were fun when I was a kid came roaring back into my life.  Growing up in the rural south, Bigfoot terrified me.  I honestly had horrible nightmares of a giant, hairy monster standing outside my window staring at me with hungry, yellow eyes, just waiting for a chance to eat me alive.  I watched everything Bigfoot I could get my hands on from THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK to later films like SASQUATCH and SASQUATCH MOUNTAIN as an adult.  Bigfoot movies usually tend to be cheesy but they’re still often cool.  The only thing that always angered me about them was they had only monster or at best perhaps two or three with a hint at more lurking in the woods at the end.  Me, I was a zombie guy.  This simply wasn’t enough for me.  I wanted Bigfoot to come out of the woods with all his kin like a horde of super zombies and kick some major butt.  Again, I did what I wanted to do as a writer, not what was cool.  That’s how my Bigfoot War Trilogy came to be.  BIGFOOT WAR is a crazy fun, apocalyptic twist on the Sasquatch mythos that I think any end of the world fan will enjoy.  The first book, Bigfoot War, centers on one small town of eight hundred people in North Carolina who are attacked by an entire tribe of Sasquatch like flesh eating monsters.  Bigfoot War was a dream project for me and I put my heart and soul as a fan and a writer into it.  Since its release, it has became the best reviewed, most praised book of my career to date.

So now, after nine years of hardcore zombie writing and the astounding success of my first Bigfoot book, BIGFOOT WAR II is due out in mere weeks, slated for release in May 2011 by Coscom Entertainment.  But the important thing about BIGFOOT WAR II: DEAD IN THE WOODS is that I am still writing what I love.  It combines my new breed of Bigfoot monsters with a zombie pandemic for a fast paced, gore splattered, battle throughout the American South.  I have also released a stand alone short story exclusively on Amazon in Kindle format entitled NIGHT OF THE BEASTS which is garnering equal praise.

A simple truth to always remember as a writer is that old saying of write what you know and love.  It’s true and something I live by.

Eric S Brown is the author of numerous books including,  BIGFOOT WAR, BIGFOOT WAR II, WAR OF THE WORLDS PLUS BLOOD GUTS AND ZOMBIES (Simon and Schuster), SEASON OF ROT (Permuted Press), and WORLD WAR OF THE DEAD (Coscom Entertainment).  His short fiction has been published hundreds of times in the small press and beyond.  He lives in NC with his wife and son where he continues to write tales of hungry corpses and the things that lurk in the woods.

True Fiction

Guest Blogger: Dennis Tafoya

Here is a small sampling of where I’ve been spending my nights: The New Jersey Department of Corrections; The Uniform Crime Report of the FBI for 2010 (The good news, violent crime is down); Bersa Firearms (who offer a .380 semi-automatic with pink grips to support breast cancer research); Hi-Point Firearms (“Reliable, Accurate, Affordable”); Google Maps for Winnsboro and Wisner and Gilbert in Louisiana and Trenton, Camden, Millville and Runnemede, New Jersey. An online genealogy of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and a report from the New Jersey State Police that maps the gangs of New Jersey.

I can’t afford to go to Gibsland, Louisiana, where Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed in 1934, but I can visit the site virtually and see the third-generation stone marker there, scalloped and whittled by souvenir hunters until it’s become almost unreadable. Google Maps tell me how my characters are going to get around, and Street View tells me what they’re going to see along the way. Even if I’ve been to a place myself a dozen times, I’ll still keep pictures up on my computer while I’m writing the scenes set there, as I did while writing scenes for my novel, THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK involving a drug deal at the Divine Lorraine Hotel in North Philly and an attempted killing under the El at Girard and Front. Seeing the colors of street signs and the weed trees in the vacant lots puts the reality of the place in my head that I’d find it very hard to replace with only visual notes jotted at the scene in my little black notebook.

Writing fiction, I’ve found, is about research, and for writers like me, the internet is a godsend (largely initiated, by the way, with public dollars, on the back of the old ARPANET). It’s not just that I want to check my facts, it’s that the details I stumble across take me in odd and unexpected directions and actually generate story. I think, too, that writing fiction doesn’t release the writer from some responsibility to render the world accurately. There’s nothing more disappointing in the experience of reading fiction than when a writer gets the important stuff wrong, and I’m not just thinking about the details of time and place. To portray social and political realities as they are, as well as the ways we talk, move, work, and live our lives allows the work we do to become richer and more interesting, and moving in the direction of accuracy and its demands for a nuanced and realistic view of human nature makes for better and “truer” fiction.

Dennis Tafoya lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and is the author of two novels, DOPE THIEF and THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK, as well as numerous short stories, appearing in collections such as PHILADELPHIA NOIR from Akashic Books. THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE called DOPE THIEF  “A classic story . . . First-time novelist Dennis Tafoya has a nice sense of how and where his characters live, revealing in stark detail the hardscrabble life of the petty thief.” THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK received a starred review from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, and the WALL STREET JOURNAL called it a “mesmerizing and most impressive book… Tafoya is finding his own original voice, one that will make readers sit up and listen.”

Call It What You Like

Guest Bogger: Christopher Golden

I don’t worry about labels.  Never really have.  And I try to pass on that disregard for labels to my children.  Let’s face it, we put people into categories in our minds and sometimes we even speak those labels aloud.  In school, it’s done by students but also by teachers and even by parents.  To a certain extent, I suppose it is part of the human mind’s organizational skill set.  Sometimes this categorization leads to prejudice and bullying, and other times it’s more mundane.  We quickly put mental labels on the people we encounter, and those labels come with presumptions and expectations.  Often, people will turn out to be more complex and multi-faceted than we at first imagined, and we have to revise our expectations.  Expand our definition.  Cross-categorize.

As a kid, I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the perceptions of others.  I gravitated toward the people and the activities that made me happy, and sometimes that meant defying expectations.  Though I was lucky enough to have some close friends, I also floated from group to group on any given day, which I suspect made it difficult for others to categorize me [at least, to categorize me beyond “the big, goofy kid who needs a haircut”].

When I became a writer, that didn’t change.  [Though I did get a haircut.]

Over the years I have been blessed to be able to write in many different genres, and to spend an awful lot of time playing in the blurry borders between them.  Supernatural thriller, weird science/murder mystery, historical horror/dark fantasy, romantic magical realist horror.  “32 flavors, and then some,” as the song goes.  Most of the time, I’ve written what felt right to me, and I’ve let the publisher worry about what kind of label to stick on the book. 

When I wrote my first novel, OF SAINTS AND SHADOWS, it never occurred to me that I should try to stay within certain genre parameters.  There was a story I wanted to tell.  I’ve often described that novel by noting that the first act is mystery, the second is horror, and the third is over-the-top action-fantasy.  Back in 1994, you see, there was no such thing as Urban Fantasy (with a capital “U.F.”).  The Peter Octavian novels were slotted as horror or dark fantasy, without ever quite being comfortable under either label.  That trend continued in some of my other novels, like STRAIGHT ON ‘TIL  MORNING and STRANGEWOOD, (although, to be fair, those are more “suburban fantasy” than urban).

Nobody would have called OF SAINTS AND SHADOWS an example of urban fantasy back then.  The extraordinary Charles de Lint and a handful of other writers had pioneered urban fantasy, bringing folklore and fairy tales into modern settings, and for a long time, that was what people would have thought about if they’d heard the phrase.  Charles de Lint continues to produce the best urban fantasy stories of his generation, but this other Urban Fantasy genre has usurped the label.

Fast forward to now.  Ace has reprinted the entire Peter Octavian series and released my brand new Octavian novel, WAKING NIGHTMARES, and all of those books carry the Urban Fantasy label.  I’m very content with that.  When Urban Fantasy means the work of writers like Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, Kelley Armstrong, and Simon R. Green, I’m honored to have WAKING NIGHTMARES and the entire Octavian series under that umbrella.

And while the Octavian novels will always exist in that blurry border that has become its own genre, I’ll also continue to play in the gray areas that separate other genres.  For some reason, that’s just how my mind works.  When I said I don’t worry about labels, I probably should have also said that I really don’t want to worry about them.  I just want to write the stories that make me happy, and if they make you happy, too, then by all means, put whatever label you like on them.

So, what do you think?  Do labels help guide like-minded people to a book, or do they alienate people who might be prejudiced about the label?  It’s a double-edged sword, I suppose.  But either way, I think we put too much stock in labels, in life, and on books.

Christopher Golden is an award-winning, bestselling author of novels for adults and teens, including OF SAINTS AND SHADOWS, THE MYTH HUNTERS, THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN, STRANGEWOOD, the BODY OF EVIDENCE series of teen thrillers, and THE SECRET JOURNEYS OF JACK LONDON, co-authored with Tim Lebbon.  His current work-in-progress is a graphic novel trilogy collaboration with Charlaine Harris.

A lifelong fan of the “team-up,” Golden frequently collaborates with other writers on books, comics, and scripts.  He has co-written two illustrated novels with Mike Mignola, the first of which, BALTIMORE, OR, THE STEADFAST TIN SOLDIERAND THE VAMPIRE, was the launching pad for the Eisner-nominated comic book series, BALTIMORE.  With Tim Lebbon, he has co-written four novels in the Hidden Cities series, the latest of which, THE SHADOW MEN, hits in June, 2011.  With Thomas E. Sniegoski, he is the co-author of the book series OUTCAST and THE MENAGERIE, as well as comic book miniseries such as TALENT, currently in development as a feature film.  The online animated series he wrote with Amber Benson, GHOSTS OF ALBION, received a special citation at the Prix Europa and boasted 100,000 unique hits per week in its original run.

As an editor, he has worked on the short story anthologies THE NEW DEAD, THE MONSTER’S CORNER, and BRITISH INVASION, among others, and has also written and co-written comic books, video games, screenplays, and a network television pilot.  Golden was born and raised in Massachusetts, where he still lives with his family.  His original novels have been published in more than fourteen languages in countries around the world.  Please visit his website here.

Overturning Convention

Guest Blogger: Joe McKinney

Zombies are the monster world’s equivalent of a good pair of blue jeans: they go well with just about anything.  In recent years, they’ve gone up against everybody from the police and the military to superheroes, the cast of Star Wars, vampires and unicorns.  They’ve even taken on Jane Austen.

The living dead have worked their way into our hearts…one bite at a time.

So it’s not hyperbole to say that zombies are the hottest thing going.  Unfortunately, with that popularity has come a flood of mediocre works that at best read like carbon copies of each other.

This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of success.  Somebody does something great and the herd follows.  Soon, even the really great stories are lost in a sea of worthless drivel.  And that begs the question: In such a flooded market, how do you make something that is both genuinely and meaningfully unique?

For me, the answer has always been about character.  A really interesting character has a cascading influence throughout the story in which they find themselves, coloring our perception of everything from the setting to the plot’s central problem to our attitudes about the other characters in the novel.  The truly great characters even teach us something about ourselves.  And when we close the cover of a book, it is always the characters we miss the most.  They are the Scarecrow to our Dorothy.

But how does one go about creating a character capable of breathing life into a book about the shambling dead?  How does one do the unexpected?

I’m sure there is no end of answers to this question, but for me, the best characters are outsiders in their own world.  There are at odds, not only with the zombies who have invaded their world, but also in their daily lives.  And that’s the kind of person is was looking for when I came up with Eleanor Norton, the main character of my most recent zombie novel, Flesh Eaters.

Allow me to explain.

During my fifteen years as a disaster mitigation specialist and homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department, I watched female officers treated as second class citizens, both by their fellow officers and by the public at large.  If the woman in question was pretty, or petite, many assumed she was too much of a girly girl to do a job that frequently demands raw physical strength and the ability to kick some bad guy’s ass.  But if she was tough, people called her mannish, or butch.  They assumed she was a lesbian.  They snickered behind her back and called her a bull dyke.

The situation was even worse for those who promoted.  Officers working for a female supervisor sometimes assumed she promoted because she couldn’t handle the street cop’s job.  Or worse, they spread rumors that she slept her way to the top.

Respect for the female cop is still hard to come by in what may be the last remaining boy’s club in the American workforce.

It’s sad, but it’s true.

I watched the women I worked with endure that inequity with mounting frustration and sometimes heartbreak, all the while struggling to live within the more traditional roles of lovers for their husbands and nurturing mothers for their children.

The cop in me felt for them.

I wanted to help them, champion them, if I could.

But the writer in me often reacts differently than the cop, and where the cop saw injustice, the writer saw a character simply ready to burst off the page.

Sergeant Eleanor Norton, executive officer of the Houston Police Department’s Emergency Operations Command and the main character of my novel Flesh Eaters, was the result.

Eleanor Norton is a twenty year veteran of the Houston Police Department.  She’s seen it all, and despite the fact that she’s lived with the usual prejudices, has still managed to maintain a loving relationship with her husband and managed to be a fairly good mother to her teenage daughter.

But when a series of hurricanes levels Houston and floods the ruins, stranding millions of survivors in seawater and giving rise to an army of the undead, Eleanor Norton finds herself struggling to hold her life and her family together.

Quite a few recent zombie novels have featured superhuman leading characters.  A few of them, most notably J.L. Bourne’s Day by Day Armageddon series and Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels, are amazingly well done.  There are even a few films, such as the Resident Evil franchise and Quentin Tarantino’s Planet Terror, that feature superhuman female leads.

When a superhuman character is done well, he or she can keep readers glued to the page.  We naturally project ourselves into that character’s circumstances, and their successes become our successes.  It’s a form of wish fulfillment.

But most zombie stories written in this vein fail to achieve any real sense of humanity.  The authors fail to show us the man behind the superhero.  Their characters don’t live and breathe.  They don’t share recognizable problems or dilemmas.  In short, they have no humanity.  And humanity is really the essential element to any zombie tale.  After all, what is a zombie but a body separated from the soul, that one ineffable thing that makes us human?  If a character lacks that soul, that uniqueness, he or she is no different than the zombies trying to break down the door.

So I saw the trend toward superhuman zombie killers, and started looking for a different angle.  I saw what had become a convention, and I looked for the type of character that would turn that convention on its ear.  A cop assigned to the Emergency Operations Command was a natural choice for my character’s occupation, given my own background and the circumstances of the novel, but a male officer might have easily been lost in the background.  He had a good chance of becoming another soulless superhuman character.

So, in the hopes of doing something unique, I turned back to the frustration and heartbreak I remembered from the female officers with whom I’d worked, and put a woman in the role of Emergency Operations Commander.  Suddenly, I had a character with a built in history, someone with a unique set of struggles.

A stranger in her own land.

Going for the unexpected, overturning the conventions of a given genre, can make all the difference in a story.  It can, and usually does, separate a work from the rest of the pack.

But a great character has at least one more major advantage.  Looking for the unique perspective, and staying true to the character voice that drives that perspective, can force the writer to engage their craft in ways they haven’t done before.  Every page forces the writer to focus on character development, and when the character develops, most of the time the writer does too.

And if a story doesn’t make you grow as a writer, chances are it’s not worth telling.

Joe McKinney is a sergeant in the San Antonio Police Department who has been writing professionally since 2006.  He is the Bram Stoker-nominated author of Dead City, Quarantined, Apocalypse of the Dead, Dodging Bullets, Flesh Eaters and Dead Set.  His upcoming books include The Zombie King, St. Rage, Lost Girl of the Lake, and The Red Empire.  As a police officer, he’s received training in disaster mitigation, forensics, and homicide investigation techniques, some of which finds its way into his stories.  He lives in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio. Visit him here for news and updates.

Write, Learn, Repeat

Guest Blogger: James Scott Bell

Somewhere inside me lurks the shadow of Erle Stanley Gardner.

Gardner, of course, wrote the Perry Mason series. He was at one time, right up into the 1960s, the world’s best-selling writer. It was a testimony to two things. First, his dogged determination. He wrote something like a million words a year for several years before he broke out. Second, he became a master of the essentials of entertaining fiction: a Lead character you cared about and plots that tested him to the limit. Perry always got the seemingly impossible case, and Hamilton Burger was certain this would be the one where he would clean Perry’s clock.

Not so. Perry always found a way to win, using his inductive and deductive powers as well as his in-court technique. And readers lapped it up.

Gardner was prolific. In his early days he got paid a penny a word (which is why he always used two names with the characters. It was always, Della Streetwalked in, followed by Paul Drake. Perry Mason said, “Hello, you two.”) That way he made an extra penny with no effort at all.

We are in a new day now with e-book publishing and that is a boon to writers who like to entertain and have more stories to tell than can be published in print form. My first straight-to-e-book, WATCH YOUR BACK, is a novella and three stories. The e-book format is the only way it would appear. And so it has. There will be more.

I like the feeling that we’re back in those days when Gardner pumped out stories and pulp magazines published them. And then his novels, too.

Learn from Gardner. To make it as a writer requires a strong work ethic and a continuing learning curve.

When you write, write. Don’t be thinking about trying to make it perfect the first time. Give yourself a quota of words for every week. Find what’s comfortable for you then up that by 10%. That should be your goal.

Then look at what you’ve written and figure out how to make it better. You can read books and magazines on writing, get critiques, go to conferences. Keep writing all the way through those things.

If you do those things—learn and write, write and learn—and never stop, you have a chance to do well as a writer. Old Calvin Coolidge, not the most quotable of Presidents, once said, “Persistence alone is omnipotent.”

Prove him right.

James Scott Bell is the author of the #1 bestselling book for writers, PLOT & STRUCTURE, as well as REVISION & SELF-EDITING and THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, all from Writer’s Digest Books. He is also the author of several thrillers, including TRY DYING and DECEIVED. A former trial lawyer, he now writes full time and teaches when he can. He lives and writes in L.A.

Be sure to check out Jame Scott Bell’s “Selling Your Novel and Screenplay Intensive” coming up June 4th & 5th in Los Angeles.

Editing Techniques

Guest Blogger: Lincoln Crisler

I play G.I. Joe for a living and write scary stuff in my spare time. Janice has been good enough to let me climb aboard and share a bit of my magic with you and suggested my editing techniques as a possible topic of interest. This is what I do; if you’re looking to try something different, it might be worth your time. If you’re a reader looking for a peek behind the curtain, this would be that. As wiser men than I have said, your mileage may vary. Just for fun, I’ll name the segments after songs from the best rock band ever, RUSH.

Leave That Thing Alone: Once I’m done writing that bad boy, whether it’s a short story, a comic script, flash fiction or a novella, it goes to sleep for awhile. If I’m still lucky to have blocks of writing time in the days that follow the completion of a story, I’ll usually move onto something else. I’m always working on more than one project at a time; I’m ADD like that. Sometimes I’ll take a break from writing altogether, either because I can’t find time to write for a few days or because I need to do something else. The most important reason for putting a finished work in a drawer for a while (I recommend two weeks, but sometimes my impatience wins out and it’s only one) is so that the next time I look at the work I have a fresh perspective and will catch things that I’d miss if I edited right away.

The Main Monkey Business: So, with a couple of weeks between me and the story (and hopefully with another completed story to shove into the drawer, ideally), it’s time to pull that puppy out. I read every single sentence, as you might expect, and if something doesn’t seem quite right, I read it out loud. If it sounds awkward when spoken, it needs a rewrite. I also look for signs of slop like excessive adverbs (words ending in -ly) or one of the biggest indicators of passive voice, words ending in -ing. Sometimes I’ll get a jump on that two week break by critiquing with some fellow authors whose opinion I value. I can usually implement their advice right away, since it’s not tainted by lack of objectivity. There’s been one or two times when I’ve been up against a deadline and needed to forgo the break. I depended solely on the advice of my critique group and didn’t go wrong. It’s very important to have some good people around you, for a variety of reasons. I also pay particular attention to the dialogue portions of my work. I’ve been complemented on numerous occasions on how natural my characters’ dialogue seems, and by and large it comes naturally, but that praise makes me paranoid. Now I have something to live up to. Every so often somethng won’t roll off my tongue as well as it did off my pen, and I err on the side of caution in those instances.

Working Man: Basically it’s business as usual at this point; find some decent markets, write a good cover letter and push that bad boy out of the nest! I’ve had editors come back at me two or three times requesting further editing; a couple didn’t like my curse words (and honestly, the stories weren’t harmed by their removal, either!) and another noted a slight difference in writing style at a certain point (coincidentally, the same point where I set the story aside for a year and a half!). All that’s essential at this point is deciding whether you want to make the changes, and then getting word back to the editor in a timely manner. Other than that, the only thing I should point out is that asking for revisions usually isn’t a guarantee of acceptance. That’s okay, though; I have a list of ten things you’d be better off doing than worrying!

Lincoln Crisler’s debut novella, WILD, was publishied this month by Damnation Books. He has also authored a pair of short story collections, Magick & Misery (2009, Black Bed Sheet) and Despairs & Delights (2008, Arctic Wolf). A United States Army combat veteran and non-commissioned officer, Lincoln lives in Augusta, Georgia with his wife and two of his three children. You can visit his website here.

Writing Habits for Success

Guest Blogger: Lisa Gardner

When I first started out as a writer, I wrote on a shared computer in the college computer lab during the free time I had after my classes, homework and work study job were all completed.   Basically, I drafted three unpublished novels in the odd hours of the morning, while actively fantasizing about one day becoming a Serious Author.  Then, I would have my own computer.  In a real office.  Where I’d be over-caffeinated and artistically euphoric all of the time.  If I just had the proper equipment in the proper space, I figured, Stephen King would have nothing on me.

Good news:  I managed to sell books one, two and three.  They sent me a contract and money and everything.  Trust me, I flew out and bought my first computer before the ink dried.  Then I set it up on my first desk, hung out my shingle and called myself a writer.

And discovered that M*A*S*H airs on cable TV pretty much 24/7.  I had the equipment, the space, the nagging contractual deadline.  So why was I suddenly getting nothing done?

First cardinal rule of writing:  Write!  Before, because I had limited time, I was highly efficient about using it.  But the moment I had all day, that’s what it took for me to craft a sentence.  I puttered around the house, surfed the internet, and mastered Freecell.  Technically speaking, I used my new laptop a lot.  I just wasn’t writing on it.  In fact, I was teaching myself to play on the computer, not a good habit for completing novels.

Second rule of writing:  Stress is your friend!  Writers can’t take all day to write.  Or all year.  It’s not good for us.  We need to be anxious, terrified and neurotic.  It’s our natural state.  After losing 6 months to cable TV, I dramatically changed my daily schedule.  I gave myself two hours, first thing in the morning, to write ten pages.  No phone could be answered, no e-mail checked, no game of Solitaire started, until I’d blown out ten pages in two hours.  Suddenly I was frantic about time.  I had to get to the computer, I had to get to work.  If I didn’t get my ten pages done…  Well I didn’t know what would happen, but it was best not to find out.

Third rule of writing:  Pavlov’s not just for dogs!  During this time, I attended a writing conference where an author stated the key to the success of her dozen NEW YORK TIMESbestselling novels was scented candles.  As she explained, scent can be a powerful neurological trigger.  By burning the same fragrance each day while she wrote, she conditioned herself to write every time she smelled that fragrance.  Also, she maintained two computers.  One was dedicated to writing, the other to author business (I’m thinking Solitaire, or at the very least, checking Amazon.com sales rankings).  When it was time to write, she lit her candle, moved to the appropriate computer and bingo, she was pounding out pages.  Basically, rather that sitting around waiting for inspiration, she’d trained herself to be efficiently and reliably creative.  I’ve been doing this for ten years now, and as kooky as it sounds, it works!

Over the years, I’ve adapted other writing habits.  For my most recent suspense novel, LOVE YOU MORE, I started the year-long book process by dedicating the first three months to getting the creative juices flowing:  I conducted research at the Body Farm in Tennessee, learned about Search and Recovery dogs and spent a day in jail.  When my brain was brimming with the endless fictional opportunities, I then I gave myself six months to draft the whole book, because whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Finally I worked set hours, Monday thru Friday, in a writing space with my own computer, a scented candle and my two dogs, but no internet or phone connection.  I got into a groove and I worked the groove until six months later, I had a novel.  Which brings me to the last three months, which I spent rewriting.  Have I mentioned yet that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

Bottom line:   Writing is never easy.  When you’re first starting out, you’ll struggle to make time for your hobby in between the daily demands of life.  Once published, you’ll then struggle to make time for your core job in between the daily demands of Serious Author business, which may or may not include Facebook updates, book club appearances, book tour obligations, and guest blog installments.  As many authors will tell you, we can write all day and still never get to our novels.

So do yourself a favor.  Think about your work habits now.  Figure out what candles/junkfood/computer arrangement triggers your creative process.  Then hone and perfect.  A productive writer is a happy writer, which makes finding your optimal work habits the true key to writing success.

NEW YORK TIMES bestselling crime novelist Lisa Gardner began her career in food service, but after catching her hair on fire numerous times, she took the hint and focused on writing instead.  A self-described research junkie, she has parlayed her interest in police procedure, cutting edge forensics and twisted plots into a streak of thirteen internationally bestselling suspense novels, including her most recent release, LOVE YOU MORE.

Readers are invited to get in on the fun by entering the annual “Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy” Sweepstakes, where they can nominate the person of their choice to die in Lisa’s latest novel.  For more information, please visit Lisa’s website here.