Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Don’t Bury that Turkey!

September 13th, 2010 4,210 comments

We’ve all written them—the turkey of a story or novel that ain’t gonna get published nowhere.  Whatever the reasons, it’s just not the kind of thing that any self-respecting editor or publisher will buy.  Maybe it deals with an unpleasant subject, represents an experiment that folks tell you went horribly wrong, or is the equivalent of performing “Springtime for Hitler” at a Zionist convention.  Whatever the case, it’s a creative turkey, a misconceived, misbegotten miscarriage that you foolishly pulled from the realm of ideas where it richly deserved to stay, and committed to paper or your computer screen.  Now it’s become every writer’s worst nightmare, the TRUNK STORY FROM HELL that should be sealed in that trunk forever and sunk to the deepest level of the Mariana Trench. 

Well, maybe.  And then again, maybe not. 

The thing is, ultimately, you, not your critics, have to decide if your story has any merit.  Then, too, you have to decide if it’s worth continuing to pursue the matter and trying to publish the damned thing.  When does stubbornness become stupidity, especially when it becomes clear that if you do finally manage to sell that piece of unwanted and despised dreck, you won’t even get paid enough to buy a cheap martini?  Isn’t it far wiser to focus your creative endeavors on something that’s worthy, on something that’s not only good but which will sell to a decent, professional market? 

Still, you have to decide.  Money and critical and popular recognition are important, but most of us have a story or two in our trunk that against all reason, we feel a perverted love for, an insane suspicion that despite what everyone says, it actually contains some merit, perhaps even more merit than popular, commercial stories because it dares to be different and take chances, because it doesn’t run with the pack.  Hell, maybe that story or novel not only marches to the tune of a different drummer, but it sings a song that no one else can hear, yet which is beautiful in its own way. 

During my writing career, I have ultimately sold stories that not only no one seemed to want, but which they treated like leprosy.  One story I wrote a few years ago, “The Dark at the Bottom of the Stairs,” sprang (if that’s the word) from a personal visit to have my prostate and bladder tested.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience, folks, but I adapted the experience so it became a story.  One of my friends who critiqued the tale, said it “failed on every level.”  Ouch. 

Yet last week I finally sold it.  Not for big bucks, mind you, but to a trade paperback collection focusing on unpleasant experiences.  It’s called . . . now get this . . . WRETCHED MOMENTS.   Snort if you want, but haven’t we all had such moments?  I bet if you think a while, you can remember some wretched moments you’ve had and perhaps stories you’ve written that were inspired by them.

Ultimately, the question is: how much do you believe in that story?  If you’ve considered all the negative criticism and still believe your story’s good, do you have the strength and determination to continue shopping it around, even if it doesn’t find a prestigious or profitable home? 

The purpose of this blog, as astute readers may have guessed, is to urge you not to quit.  Persist, Persist, Persist.  Persevere.   Persevere.  Persevere.  Even if you face seemingly insurmountable odds, the long fight is worth it if you succeed in bringing a good but extremely unconventional story to readers’ attention.

Who knows, they may even thank you for it.


May 13th, 2010 2,275 comments

You don’t have to buy a ticket.

You don’t have to pack your bags.

You don’t have to drive a car or buy a plane ticket.

You don’t have to reserve a room in a fancy hotel, arrange for meals, or deal with packed and smelly crowds of people.

In fact, you don’t even have to brush your teeth, comb your hair, or make sure that everything is zipped, buttoned down, and neatly in place.

Why don’t you have to do any of these things?  Because you’re going to a Virtual Con, which just may be the wave of the future.

Let me tell you about one Virtual Con.  It’s called Coyote Con, and it’s hosted by Drollerie Press, one of my publishers.  Coyote Con is located at  It’s a 31 day digital author conference which takes place on weekends throughout the month of May, and its topics are all geared toward authors and readers.  If you’re a Guest and just want to attend General sessions, all you have to do is register and choose your sessions.  If you want to attend a Special Session (for which space is more limited), you’ll need to obtain a ticket.  Either way, you just go to the appropriate chat room and participate in the activity.  All these sessions involve Guests, Featured Speakers, and Moderators.  The Moderators determine the order of questions that Guests ask Speakers at the ends of sessions.

To  quote Coyote Con’s website: “Our guests are authors, editors, publishers and other industry professionals who love to talk about, and be involved in, the making of books: cross-genre, historical, romance, horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and all the related media they generate.”  The site adds, “If there is a place where discussions of humanity, inclusion, exclusion, diversity, ability, disability, othering, religion, irreligion, patriarchy, sexuality, colonialism and post-colonial ideas also belong, it is with us.  We should always be able to see what’s possible.”  

When you go to Coyote Con’s site, check out the menu on the right.  Want to know how the Conference works?  Click on “How To Guides” and “FAQ” and all your questions will be answered.  Want to know the schedule?  Select “Schedule by Date” and “Schedule by Topic.”  For a weekly summary, click on “This Week’s Events.”  Want to see what books are for sale?  As for any con, go to the “Dealer Room.”  Interested in pitching a novel or book to an editor or publisher?  Click on “Pitch Sessions” and see what the schedule is. 

If you decide to register for the con, just use the form to the bottom right.  A password will be emailed to you.  Oh, and don’t forget to click on “Introduce Yourself” so fellow attendees will know something about you.  There’s more in the site’s menu, but I don’t want to give everything away.

In the end, what makes Coyote Con work for me are the sessions.  Man, the chat rooms are jumpin’, and there should be enough variety for everybody.  Coyote Con’s got everything from “Mythic Fiction” and “Envelope Pushing Concepts”  to “Brainstorming the Future of the Novel” and “Transformative Sex.”  There’s “Rayguns! Writing Steampunk,” “Accurate Historical Research,” “Cheap Thrills—Crime and Mystery Fiction,” and “Writing to Scare the Reader.”  Then there’s “Comics and Graphic Novels” and “‘Zine Evolution,” plus “Faery Creatures” and “Fairy Tales in Fiction.”   How can writers survive in the 21st Century?  Well, one Special Session deals with just that subject.  Want to write but need a motivational jump-start?  Perhaps “MayWriMo Writing Challenge” is your key to that bestseller sleeping inside you.  Are you sanguine or skeptical about E-Publishing?  If so, “The Perils and Pitfalls of E-Publishing” may answer your questions.

I could go on and on.  Coyote Con’s schedule features all these sessions and many more, some as spiky and controversial as you can get.  From taking part in several of them, both as a Guest and a Speaker, I can tell you that they are frequently exhilarating, mind-blowing, and revelatory.  And . . . you can do it all from the comfort of your own home, in your underwear if you wish.

This is truly a rapidly changing period in our history.  Technology and the Internet are transforming the way we live and think so quickly, it’s hard to keep up.  But if you are a writer or a reader, a magazine editor or a publisher, then keep up you must.  Newsweek is dead, one-hundred year-old newspapers are dying, Blockbuster and other video stores are an endangered species because of Netflix and online buying, and the traditional convention in brick and mortar or metal and glass buildings may also be on the evolutionary hit list.  Don’t you be too.

Folks, if you haven’t attended a virtual con yet, now may be the time.  Just click on the link above, start navigating, and you may find your life changed in unexpected ways, all of them for the better.


March 13th, 2010 110 comments

Yes, I’m serious.  I need your help.  Let me tell you why.

It happens to most writers sooner or later.  They hit a snag, run headfirst into a problem they don’t know how to solve or are even sure is a problem.  In my case, it’s a chapter in my novel that those in my writers’ group say doesn’t work.  I have two basic choices: Eliminate the chapter (it’s short), or try to fix it.  But . . . can it be fixed?

As writers, don’t we all find ourselves excessively enamored of something we’ve written?  Maybe it’s a succulent paragraph or page of description that would be better off jettisoned.  Or it’s the first fifty pages of a novel that slows it down.  In my case, it’s this chapter, which is only about ten pages long.

Let me (finally) tell you about it.

Turtan, the hero of  Inspector of the Cross, is captured by the alien enemy at their headquarters, a colossal station in space.  As he’s taken under heavy guard to their Emperor (accompanied by a human female who loves but betrayed him), he decides to escape.  Better to die fighting, he feels, and perhaps take some of the enemy with him, then meekly submit and do nothing.  After all, he’s a warrior, right?  Escorted by the guards, Turtan uses his special training to feign sickness.  Blood gushes from his nose and he staggers about.  The Bad Guys are surprised by this unexpected development, and Turtan seizes the moment by throwing a pilot aside and climbing into an alien jet.  He’s such a bright guy that he discovers how to lift off within seconds.  In the air, he learns quickly and overcomes his unfamiliarity with the craft (much like Will Smith in Independence Day).  Because he’s so darn good, Turtan manages to blast pursuing aircraft like they’re ducks in a shooting gallery.  Ultimately he kills seventeen of the enemy, destroys nine aircraft, and after he himself crashes, is recaptured by the enemy.

I thought this made a darn good action chapter, especially since it showed the hero’s toughness, resourcefulness, and added to his mythic stature.  However, there are at least two major problems (and some minor ones):

  1. Turtan’s seizing the alien aircraft and taking wing is just too damned easy.  We’re talking a gargantuan logic hole here, one that strains credibility to the breaking point.  Surely, the enemy can’t be that dumb and incompetent.  If so, the war in the novel between the two empires would never have lasted over 3,000 years.  It would have been over in 3 years.

     2.   Turtan’s shooting the Bad Guys down doesn’t make much sense either.  After all, they are in a giant space station, and any artillery fire would run the risk of breaching the surface of the station and exposing it to the vacuum of space.  A gigantic explosion could result, crippling the facility.  Why, for that matter, would the enemy keep aircraft with such dangerous firepower neatly lined up in the first place?

 Okay, here’s the deal.  Those who propose the best three solutions to either or both of these two problems will get a free e-book of their choice.  Just visit my website at   The e-book can be a short story, a novelette, or a novel.  Just give me your e-mail address, and it’ll be on its way.

Please note: Your solutions ultimately may not be practical, or simply will not work for one reason or another.  That’s okay.   The most ingenious, witty, inspired, and off-the-cosmic-wall suggestions are eligible, too, as long as they have some seriousness and desire to help behind them and don’t suggest that I simply eliminate the chapter (which I may still do).  You see, I want to cast as wide a net as possible so nothing slips through.

You never know, readers and fellow scribblers.  Even a nutcase idea may be the key.

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The Most Dangerous Thing I’ve Written

January 13th, 2010 54 comments


Actually, there are two that come to mind.

First, McPherson & Co. (then Treacle Press) published my novel, The Best Laugh Last in hardback in 1982 and then as a trade paperback in 1983.  For over twenty-five years it has haunted me.  By that I mean it has been an albatross around my neck, a skeleton in my closet, a secret I have concealed during job interviews.  And yes, it is also a book that cost me two jobs.

Why?  Back then, I was a professor at a small black college, and I decided to write a novel about some of the conditions there as seen by a teacher named David Newman.  My wife said I was crazy, but I wrote it anyway and told the truth as I saw it.  Thanks to a long tradition of racism, the students were poorly equipped to pursue a higher education.  Also, the campus was run-down and poorly maintained (I called the building where I had my office, “The House of Usher.”)  Most important, though, the administration, as I saw it, didn’t care enough about educating the students.  My impression was intensified by a public scandal at another, nearby black college where several of the chief administrative officers, including the President, stole money intended for students’ education and put it in their own pockets.

Can you blame me?  Writers write, right?  They take chances.  Of course, I had a small family (a wife and a daughter), and it was conceivable that one or more of us could get hurt.  Fortunately, we all survived, but from job to job, that book followed me like a foul odor.  No matter what I did, it was always in the room.

Be aware, authors.  If you ever decide to be a whistleblower, be prepared to pay the price.

The second most dangerous, chancy thing I’ve done as a writer involves my Drollerie Press novel, Alien Dreams.  Eric Latimore leads an expedition to the planet Lagos to discover what happened to the first crew, which never reported back.  While there, he discovers huge aliens in his dreams that resemble angels and finds the only way he can save the lives of his crew is to undergo a startling transformation.

Usually it’s not a good idea to tinker and tamper with your heroes too much, at least in certain ways.  In Alien Dreams, Latimore leaves his Apache lover, Gouyen and is transformed into an eight-foot-tall alien Angel, complete with feathers.  Next, he meets and mates with their bewitchingly beautiful queen, Aleia for ten thousand subjective years.  Would the readers stand for that?  Would they still identify with my protagonist?  Occasionally, over the centuries, Latimore (whose name is now Ragar) changes bodies and sexual identities with his mate, experiencing and enjoying alien lovemaking through multiple orifices from her perspective.  Talk about gender-bending.

I was tempted to leave this unconventional love—or rather, lust—story as it was.  But Alien Dreams is the most cosmic of my novels, so I had Ragar fly in a ship clear across the universe to confront God in a battle of brains and brawn that rivals Armageddon.  Okay, it isn’t God exactly, merely a Gatekeeper who rules this particular universe.  The question is, at this point in the narrative, would readers still be able and willing to identify and sympathize with my hero?

Fortunately, Deena Fisher did not consider my tale preposterous and accepted Alien Dreams, largely because she recognizes that science fiction allows and even welcomes outlandish conceptual freedom.  Still, I feel my hero represents an experimental departure from my others, and challenges the reader to keep an open mind.

So, there are my two most daring fictional experiments, cases where I pushed the envelope in one way or another.  I could offer more examples, but I’ll save them for another time and another blog.


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How Sweet It Is!

October 13th, 2009 66 comments

Thank you, thank you, and I’d especially like to express my appreciation to the following people:

      *  Deena Fisher of Drollerie Press for editing my novel, Alien Dreams, and also doing the cover art and design on the book; 

      * Jody Wallace of NovelBooks, Inc. and Michele Dowdey of Mundania Press for editing successive editions of my novel, Beyond Those Distant Stars;  

      * Antonia Pearce of Blade Publishing for editing my novel, A Senseless Act of Beauty.  

Before I go any further, perhaps I should explain what this is all about.  No, I’m not accepting any coveted awards.  What I’d like to do this month is recognize an unofficial holiday that is growing in popularity.  The Sweetest Day falls on the third Saturday of October and “is described by Retail Confectioners International as an ‘occasion which offers all of us an opportunity to remember not only the sick, aged, and orphaned, but also friends, relatives and associates whose helpfulness and kindness we have enjoyed.’”  

            This year, I’d like to focus on those who have generously devoted time and effort to helping me improve and in some cases, market my writing.  Since much of my fiction, in keeping with the Halloween season, is not only speculative but creepy and scary, perhaps extra thanks and appreciation are called for.  Cosmic monsters, vicious aliens, and yes, your darkest, most soul-shriveling fears are all found in my fiction, which one normal friend of mine has described as just plain “weird.”  When it comes to erotic romance, most of us may be receptive even (or especially) if it is more than a little bit kinky.  But Deena Fisher of Drollerie Press had the patience to take Alien Dreams through more than three complete edits even though its main character changes into a giant alien and makes love to their queen for thousands of subjective years, occasionally exchanging bodies so he can experience the sex from another point of view. 

            Here’s some more editors I’d like to thank: 

            *Lauren Gilbert of Eternal Press for Here Be Dragons

            *Heather Bollinger of Mundania Press for Speaker of the Shakk

            *Lea Schizas of Damnation Books for Green in our Souls

            *The anonymous editor of Blue Leaf Publications for The Voice of Many Waters

Alas, I can’t thank them all.  There are the cover artists, too, you see, and the editors of the nearly five hundred short stories and poems I have published in my writing career.  Yes, I know that some of the editors may have done little, simply corrected spelling, but the meaning of the Sweetest Day is that we acknowledge and remember those whose kindness and assistance have benefited us.  For me, that means in particular those whose editorial eye and judgment have helped me sharpen characterization, improve phrasing, avoid inconsistencies, and see creative possibilities I hadn’t noticed before.  The grisly ghouls and evil creatures that inhabit my fiction, both on this Earth and elsewhere owe a profound debt to their guidance and suggestions.  

In closing, I’d also like to thank all those in my writers group, which I have been a member of for twenty years.  Their astute ability to see the flaws, contradictions, and limitations in my work are much appreciated.  To mention just a few: 

* Dave Wilson, the czar of 

* Richard Rowand, the former editor of Starshore, who once volunteered to read Beyond Those Distant Stars and threw the manuscript across the room when he noticed some egregious weakness; 

* Dr. Ingrid Parker, the eagle-eyed, award-winning author of the Akitada mystery series;

  * And Allen Bryden, Jean Klein, John Bushore, Jackie Bushore, Jacqueline and Jeff  Falkenhan, Bob Stein, and anyone else I’m forgetting. 

Thank you all, my partners in creation.  I couldn’t have done it without you!

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Hello world!

September 28th, 2009 174 comments

Welcome to Storytellers Unplugged. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

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Falling for Cliffhangers

June 13th, 2009 4 comments


In my last blog, “The Room Was Filled with Naked Blondes,” I discussed the importance of starting a story or a novel with an intriguing hook that will pull readers in so they keep turning the pages.  This time around, I want to explore a different but at the same time similar hook that will boost readers’ interest and make them read the next section in a story, the next chapter in a novel, or the next sequel in a novel series.

That other hook is called a cliffhanger.

When I was a kid, I loved to go to the local Colony theater for the next episode in a 12 or 15 part action series.  Remember them?  They featured Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, et al.  Each episode lasted ten/fifteen minutes or so, and left the kids in the audience begging for more.  We had to come back to see how the Good Guy survived and how the Evil Villain was foiled once again.  We usually knew justice would prevail, but we had to know how the hero survived, since survival—let alone victory—seemed impossible.  For seven days we twisted and turned in our beds, unable to sleep.  Saturday morning couldn’t come soon enough.

Those movie cliffhangers usually weren’t very sophisticated, but baby, did they work.  They brought us back and back and back.  In fiction, too, cliffhangers can bring us back, make us read to three am in the morning or later and not put the book down until we finish it.  Sometimes, like hooks at the beginning of a story or novel, cliffhangers are blatant and manipulative, while at other times they are subtle and work subliminally on our sensibilities.  Whatever the case, like opening hooks, they can facilitate a writer’s basic, number-one purpose, which I defined last time, thanks to John Irving’s The World According to Garp,  as the need to make readers read on to find out what will happen next. 

I’d like to present three or four cliffhangers as examples of how to keep the reader absorbed in your story.  The first one comes from Dean Koontz’s The Taking, which I recently read.  Chapter 1 starts with the pronouncement that “A few minutes past one o’clock in the morning, a hard rain fell without warning.  No thunder preceded the deluge, no wind.”  Obviously, the rain is different, even unnatural, and throughout the chapter, Koontz begins to make clear how different and unnatural the rain really is.  Then comes the Cliffhanger.  Vaguely troubled by the “silver” and  “luminescent” rain, Molly Sloan looks out the window at the porch and finds a surprise:

            The porch swarmed with wolves.  Slinking out of the storm, up the steps, onto the pegged-pine floor, they gathered under the shelter of the roof, as though this were not a house but an ark that would soon be set safely afloat by the rising waters of a cataclysmic flood.

The Taking is not Koontz’s most successful novel, but by the time I read the cliffhanger at the end of chapter one, I was hooked.  Combined with the chapter’s opening hook and the rising discomfort the reader feels throughout the chapter, the cliffhanger seals the deal.  We have the sense of unknown menace, of hostile, perhaps “cataclysmic” forces hostile to man.  Instead of hostile, vicious wolves, subdued, frightened ones appear to view Molly’s house as a refuge.  A refuge—from what?  By referring to the “ark” and using the word “cataclysmic,” Koontz’s suggests a potential disaster of biblical and worldwide proportions.  

To find out exactly what disaster looms, I read for four hundred more pages.  And I bet other readers have too.

Cliffhangers can also be found in short stories, and humorous ones too.  They don’t always promise gloom and doom or The End of Life As We Know It, but they do have to be interesting and enticing.  To mention one example, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s four-page tale, “A Dozen of Everything,” opens with a bride-to-be who receives a wedding gift which disappoints her but intrigues the reader.  “Here I am, being married in four days, and without a rag to wear, and Aunt Hepsibah sends me perfume!”

“A Dozen of Everything” is a piece of light-hearted fluff.  Still, clever humor is tough to write, and you have to keep the reader entertained.  Breaking the stopper in the bottle, Marcie discovers that she’s summoned a djinn who grants her a wish.  Marcie, who’s rather poor, foolishly asks for “a dozen of everything” in her bedroom.  The first section ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger: “‘Did I dream the whole thing?’ she asked herself dizzily.”  Well, did she or didn’t she?  Readers think they know but turn the page to find out.

Later, at the end of another section, we have a second cliffhanger.  Marcie returns home, wondering if the djinn has delivered on his promise to give her a dozen of everything.  She tells herself “It’s all nonsense.”  Then: “She shut her eyes and opened the door.  She walked in . . .”

As you might guess, Marcie made a common error in stories of this kind.  She didn’t phrase her wish wisely, and she will have to face the consequences of her disastrous semantic mistake.  If you want to know what the kicker is, look up the story, which ends with another cliffhanger, a humorous twist that leaves Marcie’s future up to your imagination and will make you wonder what the heck she’s going to do. 

I said I’d like to present three or four cliffhangers, but that was a bit of a fib because it’s Plug Time.  One of my SF action-adventure novels, Beyond Those Distant Stars, was just published for the second time by a new publisher (look for it soon in some brick and mortar stores, on Amazon, etc., and available now at  I thought I’d use the novel to present several examples of cliffhangers.  Please note: you need to vary your cliffhangers.  It’s generally not wise to have them all basically the same, whether it’s the smash-boom-kaplooey!!! of “My God, unless we do something fast, the Earth’s doomed in less than ten seconds!”, or subtle, such as, “He was a bit troubled by the approaching meteor’s effect on certain Earth flora.” When crafting cliffhangers, writers should strive for variety, though a certain kind (e.g., hard or soft, nail-biting or subtle) may predominate.

I start off Beyond Those Distant Stars with a one-word hook:  Emergency!  Stella McMasters is in charge of a nuclear facility and it’s about to explode – that is, have a meltdown.  In coping with this emergency, Stella saves a life, but is drenched in radioactive iodine.  The Prologue ends, “The last thing Stella remembered before she lost consciousness was a voice calling her name.”

What happens to Stella?  Does she die?  In the first chapter, we find that scientists had to remove nearly two-thirds of her body, and she’s been turned into a superhuman cyborg AND as a reward for her sacrifice, given her first command of a ship, the Spaceranger.  Early on, the reader senses that because of her promotion and reassignment, Stella will play a key role in saving humanity from those pesky, vicious aliens who invaded the galaxy a few years before and who have brought humanity to the brink of annihilation.  First, though, Stella begins to become interested in Jason, the jump pilot, whose disembodied brain is interfaced with the ship.  Stella hasn’t even met the guy yet, but the computer translation of his voice stirs her.  The first chapter ends, Oh God, she thought, what a voice!  I wonder what he looks like.

Except for the exclamation point, this is a relatively subtle cliffhanger.  It suggests a future involvement between Stella and Jason, a relationship the reader already senses is doomed because Stella is mostly synthetic, more machine than woman.  Also, she is adjusting to her first, supremely crucial command and should avoid all distractions, especially romantic ones.

Later, Stella and her crew confront an alien ship, which does something unprecedented: it extends a boarding tube.  Despite opposition, Stella sends soldiers into the ship and . . . you guessed it, the soldiers get creamed.  Only a few of the alien Scaleys perish.  This result only replicates what has happened time and time again.  The score is aliens 5001; humans NOTHING.  The aliens have won every single battle by a lopsided score.

What does Stella decide to do?  Unable to escape the alien craft, she decides to lead a contingent of soldiers herself into the alien craft.  Remember: humans know virtually nothing about the aliens, that always self-destruct and decompose when captured.  Also, humans know ZERO about what an alien spaceship is like – how it works, what’s inside, etc.  All they know is that aliens have vastly superior technology that renders the five-year contest analogous to a war between ants and androids.  In this boarding scene, I try to use a hard, nail-biting cliffhanger as opposed to a subtle one by combining the Mysterious Unknown with the expectation of Certain Slaughter for all humans.  The last sentence of chapter five reads (drum roll please):

Teeth clenched, Stella closed and sealed her faceplate.  Then she turned and led her followers into the alien ship.

What happens?  Does she win or lose?  Are her troops toast or triumphant?  The questions matter because if she loses, humanity is kaput and soon to be extinct.  The rest of Beyond Those Distant Stars explores what happens. 

One last note: since I plan a sequel, in the Epilogue all is not Wine and Roses.  New threats loom on the horizon to challenge and threaten Stella.  Hopefully, the reader will buy the next installment in the series, and the next. . . .

And there you have it, potential Cliffhanger fans.  To keep folks reading, consider providing an incentive, a subtle/over-the-top/or someplace in between Cliffhanger.  It’s a method that’s as old as the hills, and a crucial part of your story’s momentum.
















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The Room Was Filled with Naked Blondes

May 13th, 2009 6 comments


Now that I have your attention, we can begin.  My title comes from a long forgotten story.  I can’t remember anything about it except the fact that its first sentence was, “The room was filled with naked blondes.”  Oh yes, I vaguely recall that the blondes weren’t real, just images.  Not quite as exciting, but by that time I was already hooked.

If you can read that first sentence and not read on, then lie down, partner, you’re dead.  The sentence is what they call a “hook” or “grabber.”  Whether you’re writing a drabble, a short story, or a two-million word novel, it helps if the first sentence or first paragraph is interesting and intriguing.  Maybe the reader who randomly plucks your book off the shelf won’t buy it anyway, but if its opening words don’t catch him, then it’s for damned sure the rest won’t either.

An opening hook can’t turn a bad story or novel into a good one, but it’s a crucial, essential start.  From personal experience, I know that if the first few lines of a novel don’t grab me, then that baby goes back on the shelf.  Maybe the back cover blurb will pull me in, but always, if I don’t like the story’s beginning, it’s DOA.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few of my own brilliant hooks with the aim of illustrating a point.  And that point is: YOU GOTTA HOOK ’EM FAST, OR YOU’RE BOUND TO LOSE ’EM!

Okay, here’s how I begin my novel, Beyond Those Distant Stars, due out soon from Mundania Press:


            “Why do they call me?” Supervisor Stella McMasters muttered as she ran down the circular metal stairs of the turbine building on the planet Warren.  “The crew knows more about reactor plants than I do!”  She raced past each of the landing’s flashing red lights that warned of out-of-control readouts in the pit below.

Okay, there’s a lot of back story here I might have liked to put in.  For example, the Empire was invaded by aliens five years before and humanity’s about to go belly-up before an invincible enemy.  But starting a novel with an “info dump,” with tell rather than show is perhaps a writer’s most common mistake.  What I wanted to do was start with action/danger and blend in the exposition later, a bit at a time.  Usually it’s best to start a story in medias res or in the middle of the action.  That way you can snag the reader’s interest and later work in the explanation.  However, the reference to “the turbine building on the planet Warren” indicates that BTDS is science fiction and that there is a crisis at a nuclear facility.  Often you can imply the plot and situation without coming right out and saying it.

Not all opening hooks are action-oriented or pack a sexual wallop.  Some are subtle and haunting, lure you in with a psychic tease rather than a kick in the gut or genitals.  Daphne Du Maurier, for example, begins Rebecca with a nine-word sentence that resonates long after you’ve read it:

            Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again.

What makes this so effective?  Part of it is the dream, but I think most of it is returning to “Mandalay.”  Whatever Mandalay is, it has an evocative sound, a hint of something magical and mysterious.  And we want to read on to have the mystery explained and learn what was so unforgettable about Mandalay that it called the speaker in his dream.  Is Mandalay like Xanadu in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a lost paradise he longed to revisit?

A subtle, quiet hook often presents something a little bit wrong or out of plumb.  Perhaps there’s an ordinary object or objects which are somehow out of place or signify more than they appear to on the surface.  Here’s the beginning of my short story, “Casualties of the War”:

For days, stacks of roofing had stood like abandoned soldiers on the house next door.  Sitting at his computer, Arthur Scott had noticed them through his second-floor window but dismissed them.  They weren’t important. 

There are no fireworks here, nothing spectacular.  In fact, this scene is straight from life.  I’m merely describing what my next-door neighbor had on his roof for days.  Still, I hope the reader wonders what these stacks of roofing are doing there and why they seem to be “abandoned.”  Has something happened to the neighbor?  If so, what?  In addition, we aren’t convinced by Scott’s telling himself “They weren’t important.”  The stacks seem innocuous, but we suspect otherwise.

In The World According to Garp,  John Irving puts it best: You read to find out what will happen next.  Good hooks do that, in many different ways.     

Here’s one last example, and it involves neither action-adventure-danger-suspense or a subtle, quiet appeal.  Instead, it features humor and satire.  Of course, humor can be subtle too, but that wasn’t my objective in beginning “E-Pistles from the Gods.”  What I was seeking was the outrageous.  I wanted the reader to smile, even chuckle.


               Lost the joy of sex? We’re here to help you!              

              BE A STUD AGAIN! HERE’S HOW . . .

            Granger grumbled as he scanned his morning spam. If only romance were so easy. His doctor had prescribed every pill and potion on the market for him and nothing worked.

Okay, I cheated.  This hook involves sex too, but judging from four million jokes I’ve heard, sex is often funny.  We’ve all received spam-pitches online, offers of can’t-miss products that can jumpstart our libidos and make us supermen (and superwomen) in the sack.  Yes, friends, orgasms by the truckload are guaranteed.  How can you even think of passing this opportunity up?

Did you smile when you read the first three lines?  Did you feel sorry for poor, can’t–get-a-date Granger and hope he’ll find a solution?  Good hooks often involve sympathetic characters, people we care about.  I hope I achieved that here, and motivated the reader to read on.

Hooks—they can be a seductive tease or a brazen proposition.  Whatever the case, they are an Invitation to Dance, with the reader being your partner.  They are also the first step in a writer’s journey, an indispensable beginning that can set the tone for all that follows.

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April 13th, 2009 143 comments


“Where do you get your ideas?”  It’s a common question that writers get, especially famous ones.  I’m not famous, but I thought I’d talk a little about the origins of some of my stories and novels, and how they came into being.

One day I was walking through Barnes & Noble, and I saw a book title: The Calm Technique.  Wham-o!  All at once a similar title leapt into my mind with one chilling word change.  The Death Technique.  And I knew at once it would be about a man with a morbid “artistic” gift: the ability to will his body to decay as if he were dead.  Gruesome and sick?  Yes, but it found a home with Dark Arts, a professional hardback horror anthology published by Cemetery Dance Publications. 

And here’s how the story begins:

I discovered the Death Technique the day after my twelfth birthday.  Perhaps it was puberty that made it possible, or the fact that I simply did the right thing at the right time.

It’s more likely, though, that I was genetically predisposed to discover the DT, that it was in my nature to lie down one day and concentrate on a realm somewhere beyond this one and start to dissolve as a result.  Well, “dissolve” isn’t the word.  “Decompose” is more like it, as in ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  “Decompose,” as in there goes my right eyeball, there goes my left.  And darned if I can’t feel my bones emerging from where my flesh used to be.

Charming, huh?  Well, here’s something a little more pleasant, though the origin, as with many of my stories and novels, is extremely slight.  One day I found myself wondering what would happen if a person found that every time he made love or had sex, he changed into the opposite gender, and the only way to change back was to have sex again.  The result was a story called “When I Was Michelle,” and the experience of his first transformation goes like this:

When Michael Truman was seventeen, he made love to his first girl.  It was the most wonderful and exciting experience of his life.

An hour later, his whole world fell apart.

It started with a tingling in his genitals that soon intensified and spread to his entire body.  It felt like a thousand crazed insects were scurrying over his skin and biting deep into his flesh. 

Alarmed, he locked his bedroom door and tore off his clothes.  What he saw made him whimper.

Uh, sorry, folks, I can’t go any further.  This is a PG site, after all.  But I hope you get my basic point, which is that many, not all of my tales originate from the flimsiest of sources.  One story, “High Concept,” sprang full bloom from just glancing at a page when a book fell open.  I didn’t read a single word.  Another, “Ancient Art,” which I just finished, came from watching a documentary on ancient Australian cave art which in ancient days, was accompanied and complemented by musical instruments.  Suddenly the basic plot and theme were just there.  All I had to do was expand them a little.

I even wrote a novel inspired by a single evocative word: Dreamfarer.

Occasionally my stories do have a more substantial foundation and ripen a while in my mind.  That’s the case with my longest and most ambitious novel, A Senseless Act of Beauty, published by Blade Publishing and available at  Beauty is African SF that takes place on a distant, exotic world in the 24th century, and its hero, Aaron Okonkwo, is a Nigerian scientist who has to save this “New Africa” from colonial exploitation—just as the original Africa was conquered and colonized.

Where did I get the idea?  For many years I had taught at three historically black universities and was immersed in African-American culture.  Then one day I was sitting near a bookshelf at Norfolk State University and suddenly just knew that if I reached out and picked a book from a shelf, the book would inspire me to write my next novel.  So I reached out and picked a book at random, and when I brought my hand back, I saw that it held Things Fall Apart, a novel by the great Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe.  In it, Nigeria is conquered by colonial exploitation—something that my hero on the planet Viridis tries to prevent against overwhelming odds.

First, though, since all my novels involve romances, Aaron has to resist a more immediate threat by a delectable native girl who will soon prove to be irresistible:

Peering through the shining leaves of a sarberry bush, Aaron Okonkwo watched the naked alien girl dive into the pond. Her green body lithe, and breasts full and firm in the sun. He wet his lips, feeling his blood course as her delicate, sinuous form glided through the water faster than any human could swim. She moved smoothly, with barely a ripple, her webbed hands flowing with graceful precision. Watching the water caress her long, slender limbs, he felt his body respond.

So where do I get my ideas?  Like many writers, I get them from many places, although it seems that often I reap when I have done only the barest of sowing.  Whatever the source of my ideas, I’m grateful for every one and invite you to come explore them with me at






February 13th, 2009 2 comments

286623693_8e260c460a_m1By John B. Rosenman

As I discussed in a previous post,  promotion of your writing is important. These days, promotion online is especially critical. I know many writers who may sit in their chairs in front of a monitor from sunup to sundown, endlessly hawking their stuff. Trailers, Tagging, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Chats, Virtual Tours, Interviews, Blogs on Personal Web Sites, Contests, the Posting of Covers, Excerpts, You-Name-It. The list goes on and on. A major danger, of course, is that you may engage in promo so much that your writing suffers or even comes to a screeching halt. Be forewarned: the Internet is seductive, a potential snare and bottomless sinkhole created by your own vanity. If you join too many Yahoo groups, you run the risk of becoming a talker, gossiper, and socializer rather than a writer or artist.

Used wisely and with restraint, however, Cyberspace is a vast, invaluable resource for Getting the Word Out About Your Favorite Subject, which is, of course, you and your writing. Regardless of their preferences, most writers should use the Internet at least sometimes, for it can pay dividends.

Recently, writers of one of my publishers, Drollerie Press, have begun to promote themselves and their writing by posting guest blogs on each other’s sites. It’s another way of opening up new territory and being seen in places that you don’t usually frequent. This month, I thought I would post my first maiden blog in Drollerie Press’s blog tour. It appeared on Catherine Schaff-Stump’s “Writer Tamago” on January 31, and the url is . . .


Greetings to the readers of this blog, and my warmest thanks to Catherine for hosting this post. I’m John Rosenman, and I’d like to tell you a little about myself as a writer.

Altogether, I’ve published about 350 short stories in places like Weird Tales, Whitley Strieber’s Aliens, Starshore, and the Hot Blood erotic horror series. I’ve also published ten books, six of which are novels, and one of which is a short story collection. Some of the novels, like Drollerie Press’s Alien Dreams, share a basic plot: a man travels to a distant world and has amazing adventures. Why do I keep returning to this story? Well, I grew up during the Golden Age of Science Fiction which stressed the mind-boggling, mind-stretching wonders of the universe and the extraterrestrial marvels of outer space. I read The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, saw SF thrillers like War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, and The Thing, and had my mind splendidly warped forever by their influence. (For more information, check my web site,

A sense of wonder and infinite, even frightening possibilities—that’s important to me. I’ve always felt free to let my imagination soar as high as it can go, even if it means taking foolish chances and proposing ideas that some people might laugh at. So in Alien Dreams, my most cosmic novel, Captain Eric Latimore actually changes his species in order to save his crew and the woman he loves. He transforms into a giant, winged, angelic-looking creature and makes love for 10,000 subjective years to the aliens’ beautiful but deadly queen to seal the deal. Then he tearfully says goodbye to his Apache lover and leads the “Angels” across the galaxy—no, across the universe—to do battle with god, or the Gatekeeper who rules this universe. What happens if he wins? What happens if he loses? Well, if he loses, two people die, because he is actually not one person but two. Fact is, a brother shares his brain with him, and they directly experience each other’s thoughts. What happens if the brother disagrees with Latimore and wants to seize control? Ah, that’s another development, another terrible complication for our complex and courageous hero.

I like to think that I write “Wow,” post-Golden Age SF that takes risks and involves high, high concepts. But characters and characterization are important too, perhaps even more important, because the soul of life consists of people, people we know and people we can imagine, even if they sometimes happen to be horrifying aliens who look completely different from us.

I’d like to thank not only Deena Fisher of Drollerie Press for taking a chance on an experimental novel like Alien Dreams, but all the adventurous publishers and editors online that have opened their creative doors to authors like me and others who don’t write to a rigid, successful formula. So thanks go to the editors of Mundania Press who purchased Speaker of the Shakk and Beyond Those Distant Stars, with their frightening and beguiling aliens and their shape-changing, transformative heroes; to Abby Carmichael of Blade Publishing who accepted my most ambitious and experimental novel, A Senseless Act of Beauty, with its neo-African alien world and standalone stories within the larger framework; to Emma Porter of Lyrical Press, who gave the young hero in Dax Rigby, War Correspondent, a chance to live in several electronic formats despite explicit sexuality and unconventional religious concepts. Last, I’d like to express my appreciation to Lauren Gilbert and the folks of Eternal Press, who recently accepted my SF horror thriller, Here Be Dragons, which will be launched next week.

What am I working on now? Hey, I’m glad you asked. Dark Wizard is a novel of alien invasion that actually occurs right here on Earth, because I finally found a terrestrial city that in some ways is just as otherworldly as anything you can find on Altair-4. San Luis Obispo, CA offers Bubblegum Alley, whose walls are encrusted with decades of gum, and a hotel/restaurant which is a deliberate monument to kitsch and outlandish bad taste. And that’s just for starters.

You know, when I was a kid, I used to lie in bed in the dark and listen to the radio. The Shadow. Lights Out. Inner Sanctum. In some ways I’m still a kid lying there, listening to the words in the teeming dark and letting them take me wherever we both want to go.

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