As you know I held a contest recently where writers were asked to submit a 500 word story on second chances or redemption. From the pool of entries a first and a second place winner were chosen.

Today I’m happy to introduce J. Conrad Guest to you as first place winner of the Redemption Contest. Mr. Guest won with his short story “A Case of Writer’s Block.”

For more information on Mr. Guest, please check out the links included in his post and be sure to visit Second Wind Publishing to buy copies of his books.


Unblocking Writer’s Block

By J. Conrad Guest

Truthfully, I think procrastination is a greater enemy for me than writer’s block. It’s often easier to put off until tomorrow what I’d planned to do today. However, A Case of Writer’s Block was written in response to a block I suffered nearly 10 years ago.

I was working on the second book in the January series—the sequel to January’s Paradigm. The trilogy is a very complex storyline composed of an alternate reality in which Germany has won World War II. The backdrop is based on my revisionist theory to an actual conspiracy theory that Roosevelt and Churchill had conspired to allow the attack on Pearl Harbor to take place, thereby enabling Roosevelt to declare war on Japan without political consequence. For One Hot January, I asked myself, what if Roosevelt had thwarted the Japanese attack on Pearl, delaying U.S. involvement in the war by a matter of even a few weeks? Would such a delay allow the Tripartite to grow too strong to defeat?

The trilogy spans two centuries and deals with speculations on time travel and creation of alternate timelines rather than the paradoxes normally associated with traveling through time to change the present. Throw in elements of romance and a man’s regrets over a love lost and I began to feel bogged down and, well, blocked.

In September 2001, a woman I was dating at the time invited me to come along with her on a business trip to New York City. Since the protagonist in the January books, Joe January, is a private investigator from Brooklyn, I readily agreed, thinking I might visit some of the same haunts he does in an effort to catch up with him.

The trip was just what I needed. In Hell’s Kitchen, the building that once housed January’s office—across from the Church of St. Paul the Apostle—had been replaced by a huge medical facility, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. We visited Zabar’s deli on the Upper West Side, where January had had, in the 1940s, a sandwich named for him—J.J.’s Special (pastrami with grilled onions and Swiss on Jewish rye bread). Through Gramercy Park and down to Greenwich Village we traipsed, all the places with which my protagonist was so familiar.

Then one day, as we crossed Central Park east to west, the idea for a short story took seed—told from the perspective of a character in a novel, abandoned by his author the result of writer’s block, its denouement so hopeful.

We returned to Michigan on September 9, two days before the WTC fell. I watched events unfold the night of 9/11, the images of the towers dominating the view of Lower Manhattan I’d seen a few days previously from the top of the Empire State Building relegated to memory and jpg. So I resolved to finish January’s saga, using January’s voice to espouse my own discontent with the political climate of this country at the turn of the century, and how it might impact the world order for the next 75 years.

I finished One Hot January and January’s Thaw, eventually combining them into one shorter novel—January’s Penitence—at the urging of a publisher who reluctantly turned it down.

As for A Case of Writer’s Block, what started out as 1,000-word short story, much maligned by everyone who read it, it’s always been a favorite of mine. I continued to pull it out every year or so, when I found myself between major projects, to rework it, polish it. We bonded and became great friends, and now, in its abbreviated 500-word format, it won a contest! Which goes to show that a writer should never give up on a piece about which he or she feels strongly. It’s also a lesson on the power of rewrites and the editorial process. Some might say it’s not my best work; but it holds a special place in my heart because of its autobiographical nature, and I couldn’t be happier that it connected with J.B. After all, that’s in part why writers write—to connect with others.

I’m in a good place in 2010, the best place in which I’ve been in many years. My latest novel, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings just launched through Second Wind Publishing, I’m heading down the backstretch with my fifth novel, Cobb’s Conscience, a murder mystery that spans two centuries centered on baseball legend Ty Cobb, and I’m looking forward to working my next case with Joe January as we embark upon possible publication with Second Wind as they expand this year to include a science fiction imprint.

Oh, and let me also add that Second Wind is having a launch party on January 29 and 30, which will include Backstop. I’m inviting readers to submit a personal account, between 200 and 400 words, of their most memorable baseball date. It could be disastrous, it might’ve led to marriage. The outcome of the game is really unimportant; what is important is what happened between the couple.. In addition to a signed copy of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, the winning submission will receive a signed baseball from Backstop himself!

J. Conrad Guest


Contest Winners

January 7, 2010

Congratulations to J. Conrad Guest and Elizabeth Sweetman, winners of our latest short story contest. The mission: to write a 500 word story about redemption that dazzled. I’m posting the stories here for your entertainment.

On Monday, Mr. Guest will be blogging from here. Ms. Sweetman will also be posting from here, so keep checking back.

And now, here’s some great work:

A Case of Writer’s Block

By J. Conrad Guest

I once had a life outside this park. Years ago, and it was a pretty good one, too. I’d been a private investigator and some of the cases I worked on would’ve made good reading had they been fictional. As a matter of fact, my last case had started out as a simple missing person—an attractive young woman from Gramercy Park had hired me to find her missing father.

It seems her father had, for six years, been on the lam from a very elite overseas group. When I finally caught up with him, he spun a wild yarn about an alternate reality future in which the Nazis had won World War II. Of course the story sounded crazy to me, and I hadn’t believed any of it, but I couldn’t disbelieve the two Germans after him—I’d met them both.

That was 50 years ago and all I remember until …

I first noticed the tall man passing through the gate at 86th Street. Obviously he was a tourist, with a Yankees cap pulled down over his eyes, wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt, and holding hands with a pretty woman who had eyes only for him. He looked familiar—slender with broad shoulders and gray hair showing from beneath the edges of his cap. Because I have a good mind for names and faces, I knew I’d never seen him before; yet I felt we had unfinished business between us.

Our eyes met as we passed, going in opposite directions, and I saw brief recognition in his eyes followed by a look of shame mingled with guilt. The woman holding his hand, oblivious to the look we exchanged, laughed and whispered, “So do you love me just a little, J. Conrad Guest?” and the name registered, although I couldn’t say from where or when. That feeling of unfinished business grew stronger.

I followed the two of them across Central Park, not intending to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of their conversation—two lovers on vacation from someplace in Michigan, and something about an unfinished novel and the writer’s block that seemed to have crippled the man’s creativity.

Just before they exited the park from its west side, the tall man glanced back at me. I considered pretending I hadn’t noticed, but somehow I knew I couldn’t pretend anything in front of him: he had known I was here from the moment he entered the park. Even from a distance I could see his nearly imperceptible nod. A smirk came to his mouth; a moment later he winked at me and turned to leave the park with the woman.

The exchange puzzled me, yet it seemed to comfort me as well. Somehow I knew this tall man who seemed familiar but whom I had never met, knew me intimately. I also knew that he wouldn’t forget me in this park, and that one day soon my life outside its walls would resume …

Lying in State

by Elizabeth Sweetman

Royal Helmann Dorset III was lying in state at Colbin’s Funeral Home dressed in his navy wool suit, a crisp white shirt and his favorite silk tie. In his hands was a small, new bible. Jack Colbin had done a nice job with Roy, his final resting pose was dignified. His face had the same expression in death as it did in life, he didn’t look dead.

It was quiet at Colbin’s. In two hours the hushed gathering of mourners would stand in small huddles, murmur it was a blessing Roy didn’t suffer and solemnly shake Luella’s hand while telling her they were sorry for her loss. The wake of Royal H. Dorset III would last about 3 hours. In accordance with his final wishes, all mourners would have to file past his open casket (it was their choice to pause or kneel) to pay respects to Luella Jeanne Hastings Dorset.

The weight of the silence in Corbin’s pressed in on the windows and doors. Suddenly the air was exploded! The deathly stillness was destroyed by a supercell which broke directly over Cobin’s Funeral Home. Lightening struck the chimney, made a hole in the roof which smoldered while bits of burning wood, shingles and brick pelted the green manicured lawn.

The fire department responded within five minutes. Thankfully the lightening strike didn’t cause the whole building to blow up. The damage was limited to the chimney, a small area of the roof and to the main room with the fireplace. Ash and cinders blew down coating everything in a layer of gray dust. Some cinders scattered about the fireplace and made small burns where they landed. The very unfortunate thing about the room was the body of Royal H. Dorset lay in it. Damage to the room was superficial, Colbin’s staff would have it ready for the wake that afternoon. But the body, there was no quick fix to that.

The corpse’s skin was singed and peppered. The blast had retracted his lips from his teeth and caused his hands, comfortably clasping the small bible, to pull back and upward. His head, which rested on the soft white pillow rose several inches. His peacefully glued-shut eyes were wide open. It looked like good old Roy had gotten a hard glimpse at his future and it wasn’t pretty.

Jack Colbin could have, with time and hard work, repositioned Roy back to his comfortable repose but there was nothing he could do about the skin or lack of lips and eyelids. As it was, all Jack could do was slam the lid of the casket closed and inform the Widow Dorset that it would be impossible to fulfill her departed husband’s wishes for an open casket.

Not one single mourner present at the wake (which took place one hour late due to the unexpected weather) was disappointed with the closed casket of Royal Helmann Dorset III. No one wanted one last look at that smug face.

I married a Nordic god. He’s tall, blond, rugged, chiseled . . . all those things you read about in a romance novel that make you sigh. He’s also brilliant, which is a good thing in the Oracle database world.

Unfortunately, he suffers from what many brilliant people suffer from . . . it’s a little something I call “the butterfly effect.” (No, not the real butterfly effect . . . something else entirely as you will see.)

In his Belgariad series, David Eddings describes a situation when the protagonist, Garion, is coming to terms with his powers. He has embarked on a quest with a group of warriors. On the journey, they rescue and adopt a young colt.

Garion, unsupervised, decides he will attempt to hurl a boulder with his mind. Aparently in the world of magic, the same laws of physics apply as in the normal world. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The boulder is tossed and Garion finds himself sunk into the ground to his neck and unable to move.

Being the wizard that he is, the boy telepathically summons his horse to go for help. He links his mind with that of the colt and sees . . . flowers, butterflies, bees, birds . . . and senses the young colt scampering off in pursuit of these follies instead of bringing the trapped Garion the help he needs.

This, my friends, is the butterfly effect. And my husband has made it a sport. He, in fact, is its top athlete.

He will exit the front door. His destination: mailbox. Distance: fifty yards. Twenty minutes will go by. Twenty become thirty. Thirty become forty. I’ll peek out to check on him only to find he is standing waist high in prairie grass studying a spider web or a sapling or a flower in our daughter’s butterfly garden, a stack of mail tucked safely under his arm.

He is a considerate man, my husband. “Do you need anything, honey?” he asks. “Love a Diet Coke,” I say. “Sure thing. Right away.”

One hour later, he’ll join me in the living room, knowing only that we spoke sometime earlier . . . although he can’t quite remember what was said.

If we go to Jamestown or Yorktown to see the sites or on a guided tour, he lags behind, savoring every moment, examining every artifact. When he’s done with that, he studies the trees and the dirt and the plants and anything else he can see or touch or smell.

Now, you may think I’m poking fun at him . . . and I guess I am. But what you need to know is that these things set an example for me.

In her book, If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland stresses the importance of recognizing the need to pay attention to “now.” “What is happening to me now.”  She recognized that writers spend a lot of time inside their own heads, hosting conversations between characters, dreaming of plot, pushing forward. We forget to stop and smell the roses.  And sometimes, the best ideas for scene description or mood in a chapter can come from the things we observe if we’ll only take the time to look.

I try to be like my husband. I try to be more observant. Often I fall short. I cannot be the athlete. I can only be the athletic supporter.

What about you? Is there someone who sets an example for you, forces you to slow down a little bit? Someone who influences you in weird ways?

I’d love to hear about it.


October 23, 2009

One would think that, after editing, re-editing, proofing, and re-proofing, that a book would be perfect, ready to go, error free.

Not so.

I got the proof for One Too Many Blows To The Head on Monday.  It was thrilling to see it in print.  However, despite the fluttering of my heart when I looked at it and flipped through its pages–pages laced with the heavenly smell of printer’s ink–I knew I had to push past the honeymoon phase and get to readin’.

As I opened it and read the first paragraph I realized one thing . . . I was really getting tired of proofreading. After all, writing is the fun part. Writing is what makes my heart sing. Writing is what I do. Proofreading is like washing dishes or vacuuming. It’s a job to me.

But read it I did.

And I found errors. Nothing embarrassing, like changing a character’s name halfway through the book, but errors in punctuation or spacing that were noticeable to me and would certainly be noticeable to a reader.

So another proof has to be ordered.

Am I disappointed? Sure I am. But not as much as I would be if Eric and I had let it go to press with all the errors inside.

I constantly remind myself that I shouldn’t let impatience govern my decisions . . . and that is so important in the writing world. Patience is what gets a good copy. Patience is what gives you time to start marketing and pushing forward. Patience is what it’s all about, man. Well, and writing something worth reading.

So here I sit, impatiently (despite my self-chastising) awaiting my next proof and reminding myself that it too will need to be read and approved by both Eric and me before it goes to press.  My fingers are drumming but I tell myself this is what it is to be a writer . . . it is to learn to love your art enough to get it right . . . no matter how long it takes.


Author Alan Draven


Bitternest has been out awhile now. How are you feeling about it? Do you find it hard to promote this book while working on so many other projects?

Bitternest has done beyond my expectations in terms of reviews, and the acceptance from readers has been tremendous. I’ve developed a loyal fan base with this book and I am extremely thankful for it. It has been a long and hard journey. The first couple of months were brutal and I didn’t see many sales. Then as reviews kept appearing and the more I promoted the book, things started to pick up. The pricing of the book has always been an issue—at $19.95, it’s been a major hurdle in my promotional efforts. I’ve had countless readers tell me they can’t afford to pay that much for a book and I completely understand, especially when it’s a first time author you’ve never heard of. Unfortunately, I have no control over pricing and even fought to get my publisher to lower the retail price. This is why I wanted to make sure that Sinister Landscapes would be affordable for everyone. I think my future books will really help boost the sales of Bitternest as new readers will discover me and seek my first novel.

As far as ongoing promotion is concerned, I seldom promote Bitternest these days. It’s been out for a year and three months. After a year, I decided to move on and focus on my current writings and editing Sinister Landscapes. I still have some ads scheduled to appear in magazines before the end of the summer and word of mouth has been generating some good sales. I’ll also be bringing a bunch of copies of Bitternest with me to signings this fall while I promote Sinister Landscapes. This will be new for me; I’ve never done signings before. This will be my first time going out there with the book and shaking hands with readers. I’m excited and scared at the same time. I’m more of a recluse when it comes to my craft and getting myself out there on the Internet is no problem for me. But doing signings and readings in front of a crowd is another story. It took all this time for me to feel confident and comfortable enough to do this. Also, since I couldn’t give the proper discount to bookstores in order for them to carry Bitternest (another serious obstacle), it wasn’t easy to get in there. Sinister Landscapes will open new markets and will be much more accessible to both readers and retailers.

Tell us about Sinister Landscapes, your up and coming anthology. What inspired you to undertake such a big project?

I’ve wanted to put together an anthology for as long as I’ve been writing. I had to make sure I knew my craft well enough before I undertook the task of editing other writers’s stories. This spring I was in a good place. I had short stories appearing left and right online and in print, I’d developed good relationships with many writers with whom I wanted to work with, I was in command of my craft, and I had a great idea for a theme for an anthology. So I went ahead and came up with some guidelines and posted them for the world to see.

I chose a gothic theme because we rarely see gothic anthologies nowadays on the shelves in bookstores. I miss them dearly and my love of the horror genre comes directly from gothic horror. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is one of my favorite books of all time and M.R. James’s ghost stories are still unmatched when it comes to a good ghost story, in my opinion. Movies also played a big part in this; I have many fond memories of watching the old Hammer horror films with Chris Lee and Peter Cushing and all those Poe adaptations that Roger Corman directed starring Vincent Price. I wanted to recapture some of that magic and these memories in this book and I think we’ve succeeded in creating a diverse anthology with echoes of the old gothic ghost stories and we’ve put a spin on them for the readers who like their horror to be more up-to-date.

After editing such a large body of work, do you find you have a taste for editing/publishing, or do you prefer the writing aspect of the craft?

I’ve really developed a taste for editing and I love the publishing process (even though the formatting part gave me many headaches). When you put a book together from A to Z, from cover to cover, when the end result exceeds your expectations (something that rarely happens in my case), you can’t help but be proud of what you’ve accomplished. I had a great time going through the submissions and commenting and doing revisions with the authors. Coming up with the cover was a challenge and I’m thrilled with the finished product; this is a book that I think we can all be proud of.

My writing has taken a backseat these past months and I will play catch up for the rest of the summer until the release of Sinister Landscapes. I wrote half a dozen short stories while I was editing and am now a little over halfway through my second novella. I’ll be starting my third novel (I’m currently seeking a publisher for my second novel) sometime in August, so I’m looking forward to that. I miss working on longer works which is where I feel more in my element. I’m a novelist first and foremost, but editing and publishing is a close second after this wonderful experience. I’ll have guidelines up again April 1st 2009 for next year’s anthology.

And speaking of publishing, tell us about your new publishing company. How did this come about and what are your plans with it?

I wanted Sinister Landscapes to have the widest distribution possible and thus was born Pixie Dust Press. Many anthologies are released these days through Lulu and most of the time, they’re only available through Lulu. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I wanted to be a bit more daring and put out a book that would be available everywhere online and try to get it in brick and mortar stores as well. I would do a small book tour with everything that it entails: signings, readings, interviews, and a massive viral campaign which is currently underway. One of the goals of my small press and these anthologies is to give us independent writers more exposure. A reader might buy the book for two or three writers and discover a handful of writers they’ll like in the process. They might wind up picking up a new author’s books and our collective fan base will expand considerably that way. This project is all about working together; egos should be checked at the door, because we’re all equal in this book. It isn’t my book, it’s our book. This is what Pixie Dust Press stands for—independent writers united. I just make sure that everyone comes together and that it all fits like a perfect jigsaw puzzle. There’s also the combined force of eighteen or so writers to promote the book which gives this project even more impact.

Themed short story anthologies will become a staple of Pixie Dust Press. For the first anthology, the contributors received a PDF of the book and a hefty discount if they wanted to purchase copies. Next year I will find a way to pay them a monetary compensation for their stories. I’m hoping to be able to increase the pay to a professional rate eventually. And starting in 2010, I want to release two books a year; the short story anthology in the fall and a novella collection in the spring. This would be an invitation-only collection where I would invite three writers to each write a novella following a theme. This would be a royalty-paying publication and an excellent opportunity for writers to showcase their storytelling talents. I want to make sure I have some strong foundations before attempting anything bigger such as venturing into publishing novels and releasing more than two books a year. I leave the door open to all kinds of possibilities, but it’s also a question of time. My writing will always come first and I will not publish a book if I don’t have the time to promote it properly. It’s also very time-consuming to read submissions, edit stories, and do the layout of a book. With a goal of writing two novels a year and releasing two books a year through Pixie Dust Press, I think I have my work cut out for me.

I’m curious about the short stories you’ve been writing. Give us the low down.

In January of this year, published my story The Bypassed Mind as part of their Amazon Shorts program. I often get asked if I only write horror; the answer is no and this is the proof. This is a time travel story and it is more of a romantic suspense. It’s the first story I wrote after I decided to take a shot at writing for a living. It has now since become a personal favorite. It can be purchased on as a PDF file for only $0.49: here.

In April, the popular anthology series Darkened Horizons published my story The Errand in their fourth volume It’s the story of a man goes through a forest to run an errand and on his way back he will find his life changed forever. The book can be purchased through Lulu: here.

In June, my story Breaking and Entering appeared in the excellent NexGen Pulp Magazine’s June/July issue. This is what I consider to be my finest short story yet and it’s about a man who enters people’s homes just for the thrill of it until one day he makes a shocking discovery. It can be purchased in hard copy or electronic form here:

In July, the free e-zine SNM Horror Magazine published my story Hershell’s Motel, about a couple who spends the night at a strange motel in Bitternest. It can be read here until the end of August after which it will disappear:

Next, I have a story in the afore-mentioned Sinister Landscapes, titled Beyond the Doomed Cave. This is a coming of age tale set in a churchyard. The gothic anthology will be available wherever books are sold in September. For all the details, visit my publisher page:

Are there any that are your favorites?

The Bypassed Mind, which features Aldous Finch, a character from my novel Bitternest, has a fond place in my heart. This is a story that I find has aged well over the last two years. It also pays homage to Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return (filmed as “Somewhere in Time”). There’s also Breaking and Entering, which I consider my best short story. As a writer, I constantly evolve and I get better at my craft and oftentimes stories that I wrote early on in my career tend to show their flaws over time. I’m particularly proud of these two tales.

Are there any characters you’ve created that you love? hate? Wish you’d never made?

I don’t think I hate any of the characters I’ve created … yet! Timothy Crane who is hinted at in my first novel takes center stage in my second novel, Fractured Time, as a powerful antagonist and one of the most evil men that has ever walked the earth. I think he’s more the type of character you love to hate than one you would hate because of what he does. He hasn’t done anything morally disgusting for the time being. My next novel, Alicia’s Last Stand, a revenge thriller, will have many characters that both readers and I will hate. It is filled with some of the most repugnant human beings I’ve ever encountered.

As far as characters that I love go, Aldous Finch, an old eccentric Englishman well versed in all things supernatural is a personal favorite. And to this day is the character my readers seem to love the most. I have received many e-mails and messages from fans who requested more of him. Terry Graves, the protagonist of my first novel who has also made appearances in short stories, is another that I really like and identify with. Ritchie Campbell, one of the supporting characters from my second novel, is another one I dearly love.

Do you ever feel bad about killing your characters?

Oh yes; I killed plenty of them in Bitternest and I tortured one in Fractured Time and it was hard at times to write these scenes. Kind of like watching someone you know suffer or losing an old friend. I always try to keep the twists coming and I never want readers to think that just because a character is one of the main protagonists of the book, they are safe from death’s grip. In my stories and books, anyone can die in the blink of an eye.

What advice do you have for writers, both published and aspiring?

Read as much as you can. Know the genre you write in well. Also read outside your genre. Write as often as you can, even if it’s only 500 words every two days. The more you’ll do it, the better you’ll get at it. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t make it as a writer. There is no surefire way to get published or to achieve success, but know that there are many ways to get there and in my opinion, none of them are wrong. Get your work out there any way you can; the important thing is to be read. Stay humble and always remember where you came from. Treat your readers with respect because they spend their hard-earned cash on your work. You owe it to them to write the best stories your mind can come up with. Always.

Any parting thoughts?

As an independent writer, I’d like to invite all book lovers and horror nuts to pick up a book from an independent author; it will be greatly appreciated. You’ll see that we write stories that come from the heart, and that we are passionate at what we do. A lot of the time, even more so than authors from the big NY houses. Visit me anytime at and if you have a MySpace page, send me an invite at

Last week, I interviewed a new talent in the fantasy writing field.  Mark Murray is experienced in short story writing and runs the e-zine Arcane Twilight.  Today’s post is a copy of his interview.

Tell us about Warders of the Gate. It’s part of a trilogy, correct?

Warders of the Gate is part of a planned trilogy, yes. With Warders of the Gate, I’ve set the stage for the war and introduced some main characters. The background to the warders is that elves have built four magical gateways from their world into the land of Rhillai. To keep the gates secure, the elves have magically altered humans into being able to shape-change into animals. These shape-changers are the warders for the gates and only they can open the gates.

Rhillai has nine duchies and two dwarven kingdoms. The duchies are ruled by a High King. But, the seat of the High King is vacant. Warders of the Gate sets up the war for someone to be High King. To make matters worse, a mage, Alisandra, has opened a gateway to another world to allow an evil army,
the Hylnan, to enter Rhillai.
The second book, War of the Gates, deals with the alien Hylnan conquering everything in their path, five dukes uniting to take control of the other duchies and the gates because a one in five chance at High King is much better than one in nine, and lastly, there is one duke fleeing with her army to eventually join with a small band of dwarves, warders, and dragons. I have one strong female lead in Warders of the Gate with Alisandra, the mage behind letting the Hylnan through. And I have one strong female lead in War of the Gates with Duke Rachel Iorion.

But, the idea that I keep throughout the whole story is that no character is safe. Some will be killed.

In addition to novel writing, you are also an accomplished penner of short stories. Do you have a preference for writing short stories vs. novel length fiction?
I actually don’t have a preference right now. I continue to write both short stories and novels.
The hard part is finding the time to get them all done.

When you’re not writing, what do you read? I really love Robert B. Parker‘s writing. I’ve read all the Spenser novels at least twice and I’m trying to read the rest of the Jesse Stone series. I used to love to read fantasy, scifi, and horror, but now that I’m actually writing them, I find that I don’t read them as much. It’s weird. I used to go into bookstores and head straight for the fantasy/scifi section. Now, I tend to just roam around looking for something to pique my interest. And I read online forums that pertain to martial arts like aikido and kali/silat.

Let’s talk about craft a little bit. As a writer, do you prefer to tell your story in first person or third person…or does it depend on the work? Do you prefer single point of view or multiple point of view?

Um, yeah. I’m really bad about first/third person and single/multiple views. For me, it does depend on
the work or story. And after reading tons of books from unknown authors to bestsellers, I’ve seen all
kinds of variations. That tells me, in the end, that what matters isn’t the view but the story being told. If you can convey a great story in just first person, it’s still a great story. If you can convey a great story
using variations, it’s still a great story.

What are you working on now? Do you ever find yourself working on multiple projects?

I’m working on:
1. War of the Gates, the next book in the Rhillai series.
2. The second book to Power Play, no title yet. Power Play is mysecond written novel,
but it hasn’t been published yet.
3. A western novel, no title yet.
4. Short stories for DargonZine.

5. I have a horror novel started, but it is on hold right now because of the above projects. I have a scifi story in my head that’s been waiting years (probably ten or so) for me to sit down and type it out. So, yes, I work on multiple projects. I have stories floating around in my head that stay there until I type them out. And I don’t write with pen or pencil or typewriter. I’ve never been able to do that. I’m weird that way. I can only type them onto a computer.

Tell us about your web-zine Arcane Twilight. How did it come to be?
I was writing for DargonZine and wanted another outlet for stories.
DargonZine is a great place to write, but it is a shared world and as such has boundaries. Stories are set within that shared world. If anyone ever wants some great experience with writing, including getting your stories critiqued by all other writers, then DargonZine is a great place to be. My writing improved dramatically because of DargonZine. So, yes, I plug it when I can because of the value. On the down side, if you want to write scifi or horror, you have to go
elsewhere. So, another writer, Carlo Samson, and I decided to start an E-Zine for fantasy, scifi, and horror stories. In fact, we’ve even showcased artwork. Arcane Twilight was started as a personal outlet for writing other stories and it grew from there.
You mention you are working on several other projects, including
a western.

Do you find you prefer writing in one genre over another?
So far, not really. With fantasy, I don’t have as much research to do. With the western, I had quite a bit more but that’s because there are real events, real places, and real people in the setting. You just can’t make it all up like in fantasy. While I don’t have a preference, I am finding that other genres can have significantly more research time.

Do you still have a “day job?” or have you attained what all writers want…the ability to write full time?
It would be great to write full time, but alas, I’m still one of the majority that has a day job. I’m thankful that it’s mostly Monday-Friday though. I also have martial arts a minimum of four days a week and sometimes five. Toss in regular chores, family time, book signings, seminars, etc and I really could use more hours in the day.

Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for writers working toward getting published?
I’ve found two major things. The first is keep writing. I know it’s silly and it’s what a lot of other authors say, but it’s a basic truth. Most professional athletes practice insane hours of the day and week. Olympic level athletes go beyond that. Top tier musicians live and breathe their work. Why should writers be any different?
Enter contests, write for fun, join a writing group, submit pieces for publication, take a writing class, etc.
I sent a short story to Marion Zimmer Bradley long, long ago for her MZB Fantasy magazine. It was rejected, but MZB sent a handwritten note in the return letter. I had understood exactly what my story was about, but as a new writer, I didn’t let that come through in the story. Naturally, MZB hadn’t understood the story either, but her reply helped me to realize my errors. I kept writing and trying to get better, but had I not sent that in, then I might not have realized I had a big hole in my writing.

The second is don’t give up. Just because a publishing house has rejected your work doesn’t necessarily mean it is badly written or not worth publishing. Publishing houses are businesses and they look for specific trends to publish. Your piece might not fit that trend rather than it being horribly written.

On May 30th, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author of the technothriller, Stormdragon by Lloyd Ritchey. Lloyd is one of Arctic Wolf’s authors and is a talent to watch. This blog post is a reprint of that interview. Enjoy!!

I just finished reading your book, STORMDRAGON. (And LOVED it!) Tell us a little bit about it.
Thanks, Jennifer, for your kind remarks about my book. I’m honored to participate in an interview.
The concept for Stormdragon had been brewing in the back of my mind for some time. After I learned about a government project called HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) I seized upon a plot. Some believe HAARP is far more than an innocuous research project; they believe it is a dangerous, clandestine weapon that can be easily abused. I took the HAARP concept, enlarged it, and asked “what if?”
Stormdragon is essentially a technothriller, with a heavy emphasis on exaggerated science, but it’s also solidly based upon historical fact and existing technology. And by the way, you don’t have to know anything about science to understand the book.
In the story, ordinary people stumble upon the truth behind the ARC Project, which is an installation like HAARP, only far larger and more powerful. The conspirators, who lust for ultimate power, are willing to use the ARC technology against anyone, even their own country, in order to implement their plan.

How did you come up with the title?
Titles, like cover artwork, are critically important. I think a title should entice, excite curiosity, and relate to the story without revealing too much.
In mythology, the Storm Dragon rides the violent storm and spouts lightning. The title flashed into my mind before I could actually find a solid tie-in to the novel. As the writing progressed, I realized Stormdragon actually worked on several levels; it is a metaphor for power, both that embodied in the terrifying machinery described in the story, and in the ruthlessly powerful conspirators who will do anything to further their agenda. It also has a direct relationship to a specific element that is revealed as the story unfolds.

Your prologue is fascinating. As I read it, I was reminded of the experiments in old movies…the rising platform, the enormous generators giving off electrical charges. Would you be willing to give us a little background on your experience with Tesla’s works?
I have been fascinated by Nikola Tesla since I read Prodigal Genius, by John J. O’Neil, in the 7th grade. Tesla was a mega-genius, whose turn-of-the-century inventions gave us modern electricity, the radio, and much, much more. He was so advanced that the U.S. government, which confiscated his research papers upon his death in 1943, still holds some of those papers as classified. He is the archetypal “mad scientist” who influenced film and artwork. Ken Strickfaden, who built the scary machines for Universal’s Frankenstein, and other films, designed the labs to resemble Tesla’s.
I have been building and experimenting with Tesla apparatus, primarily the well-known, lightning-generating Tesla Coil, since junior high school. Tesla’s incredible, dramatic, and powerful inventions inspired much of the action in Stormdragon.
I’ve used Tesla Coils to produce electrical effects for stage and screen. I toured a Tesla system with the Doobie Bros. and Kansas back in the seventies, filmed T.C. effects to illustrate a screenplay, and demonstrated the system to Universal Studios, Warner Bros., and Disney. But, these are long stories!

Your book is packed with suspense. I had a difficult time tearing myself away once I sat down to read. Does the writing style you have come naturally/easily to you, or do you have to work to get the degree of suspense you want?
The suspenseful idea is there, its energy clamoring to be expressed. Once I decide what a scene or chapter should be, I can write it fairly quickly. But keeping a tight, meaningful story structure is a challenge for me. So, I’d say yes, I have to work hard to keep the suspense ramped up. But once I feel I’ve “got it,” it’s a total blast, a catharsis.

You have a long history of writing…and even sold a screenplay in the past. First of all, tell us about the screenplay experience, if you would. Which do you prefer; writing a screenplay or a novel?
I sold a screenplay entitled Night of the Electric Death (no kidding!) to producer Warren Skaaren. I wrote the screenplay in three months. This was in 1974, and Skaaren had just completed work on Texas Chainaw Massacre. Skaaren bought the rights to the screenplay and brought director Tobe Hooper to my humble Dallas “studio” to see the electrical effects I had envisioned. There’s more to this story, but I digress.
I prefer writing novels. The main difference, for me, is that a novel requires far more skill in creating scenes; the reader must feel immersed in the scene through the author’s powers of description. A screenplay, of course, requires imagination, but it demands less description; you only have to indicate, for instance that the actors are afraid, or that the room is scary, or the atmosphere gloomy. That said, I know great screenplays require great skill. One has to know something of the production process, and have a sense of timing, structure, and dialogue. By the way, dialogue or narration that is to be spoken by an actor is a little different than dialogue that is to be silently read.
Would I write another screenplay? You bet—soon as I’m finished with my second novel!

Would you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
I’m in a time-management crisis! My second novel, a techno-horror, is about one-third finished, and I’m desperate to work on it. I just fired off a non-fiction proposal to a publisher who has shown interest, and if they go for it, we’re off to the races! Meanwhile, I need to add content to my Website (and my wife’s) and also start blogging.
I’m assembling a “dog and pony show” for book signings that I think may be somewhat unique, and I’d like to keep you posted as that develops. I don’t know if it’ll help book sales, but, like they say, keep barking up that tree…there might be a possum in it!

When you’re not writing, what do you read…both for pleasure and regarding the craft of writing?
I read everything. My favorite thriller/horror writers are Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. For horror I’ll go with Stephen King, Peter Straub (sometimes), Robert McGammon, and many others. I’ve found some gems in novels such as Whirlwind, by Joseph R. Garber, and The Breathtaker, by Alice Blanchard. Prey, by Graham Masterton, is a first-class creep-out.
Your book, The Deputy’s Widow, was the first in the noir genre I had read in many years. I don’t want to sound smarmy, so I’ll just say that I enjoyed it so much I’m reading Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, and will investigate more of the hard-boiled crime novels.
I once threw a lot of money at vendors of “How to Write” books, but can’t say any have been very helpful, and I actually disagreed with some of the authors! I found Stephen King’s On Writing not only instructive and informative, but also entertaining.

Do you (or would you ever) write in any genre other than science fiction/techno thriller?
Yes. The techno-horror I’m writing now is an example. But my strengths (I think) lie in capturing the dramatic moment and translating action into words. I love that feeling when a powerful scene manifests itself in words that bristle with energy.

What advice can you offer for writers trying to get published?
Initially, write in a genre that publishers can recognize. We’re all stuffed into boxes these days, so to get started, you may not want to be too experimental. Naturally, there are exceptions to this. Write what you enjoy.
A note here: Non-fiction is easier to sell than fiction, and you don’t have to write the whole thing up front!
Before submission, get as many critiques as you can, especially from people who don’t feel compelled to tell you they liked your book, i.e., get independent feedback. You might find some important flaws (and good stuff) after various people read your manuscript.
Have someone competent edit your manuscript. You just can’t successfully edit your own writing, even if you’re a grammar whiz.
Get the mechanical stuff right: paper, margins, headers, spacing, etc. Always find out how the publisher or agent wants his/her submission. Most of them have Websites. More and more are accepting digital submissions. Carefully read how they want material submitted. I found Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters, by John Wood, and Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript, by Jack and Glenda Neff, quite helpful. These are Writer’s Digest books.
I agree with Stephen King: you don’t always need an agent to get published. My wife’s first title, Woven Wire Jewelry, was rejected by a well known agent we met during a writer’s conference. This agent had expressed great interest and urged us to send a proposal. After the rejection, we submitted directly to Interweave Press, and in two weeks had a contract. Now my wife has published three books with Interweave.
Beware of cons. Check out potential agents and publishers. I recommend visiting This Website is packed with useful information, and they help identify the bad guys.
Finally, you might try submitting to a small publisher like Arctic Wolf, a company that’s trying hard to assemble a stable of talented writers. With increasing competition and reduced sales, the big-name publishers are being advised to curtail acquisition of new writers and concentrate on promoting the authors they currently have.
If you’re interested in a specific publisher, read some of their books to see if the quality is there. Do you want to be in their company? If the publisher gets a bad name for poor product, it’s not going to help you.
Stay at it. Persist. Be prepared for rejection. Keep writing.
I wish you every success.

Banana Man

May 26, 2008

He works in produce under a cloud of vegetable matter, avoiding shopping carts filled with all the things you can get at Super Wal-Mart. He is an island unto himself, never making eye contact with shoppers, never speaking to co-workers except through the subtle arch of an eyebrow or the barely perceptible lift of one shoulder. Screaming children do not faze him. Obese women on cabbage diets do not deter him from his goal…restocking the bananas.

Wheeled carts stacked to the toppling point with boxes bearing the DOLE BANANAS logo make their way from the back room, propelled past the nuts, garlic, potatoes, and onion bins to the enormous banana island that holds the place of honor in the center of the produce section.

One can feel the envy of the other produce workers as Banana Man maneuvers his load through throngs of customers ready to start their Memorial Day drinking early…tapping their toes as they await the latest shipment of non-organic bananas from Cuba…or somewhere. “If only I could be Banana Man for a day,” the other workers, shelving pre-packaged spinach and field greens say to themselves.

But Banana Man doesn’t hear this. He pushes back the top of the first box, his eyes focused on a point on the horizon somewhere over behind the seafood counter, and pulls bunches, two at a time, from the box. He moves quickly, nothing but a torso and legs in his dark blue shirt and khaki trousers…his hands are nothing but a blur. He turns on his heel and is gone, already on his way to fetch the next cart as the banana crowd sighs, “Oh my. Look at this, thirty-three cents a pound.”

I didn’t realize I noticed him or the ritual “unpacking of the bananas” until he was gone. And I didn’t realize I missed him until I saw him last week, back in produce, handling a tomato. “What,” I wondered, “debauchery is this? Where has he been and what is he doing with a tomato?”

I don’t know what he was doing handling that tomato. Chances are I’ll never know. But he is a character I’ve come to rely on here in the great state of Virginia. He helps to define my new home and he gives me something to wonder about. I’ve made up his whole story… where he came from and what he does after he goes home, where he was raised and why he likes produce so much.

Banana Man, what I know of him in the real world, appears to be anti-social. He does not smile. I’ve smiled at him a few times, desiring to know more about this bearer of produce. But he shuns me as he shuns all other shoppers, preferring instead to do his work…and only his work.

So why am I telling you about Banana Man? Because he is fascinating…like so many other people who carry out their jobs day after day…unnoticed and underappreciated. And because he inspires me. He reminds me to look to my environment for inspiration. Amazing people are everywhere…and it is imperative that a writer remember that.

Turning Left

May 15, 2008

Apollo likes to walk. We take him out with Rocky while Adrian stays at home. (Yes, our dogs are named for the Rocky movies.) Being a Doberman, with a splash of Black Lab thrown in just to keep us on our toes, Apollo isn’t satisfied with just “walking.” He thrusts his nose deep into the ground, snorting up anything that will fit into his blow-hole sized nostrils. And he’s not satisfied to walk leisurely. He wants to trot or run or anything really besides walk. There is always something more interesting just beyond the end of the leash.

How does he compensate for this restriction in mobility? He turns circles. He trots for five feet, sniffing and snorting, then turns a circle. To the right. Always to the right. Apollo can’t turn left…except for this one time, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Rocky is an Akita with a splash of German Shepherd Dog thrown in for more dignity and a greater ability for condescension. He holds his head up regally, toenails elegantly clicking on the pavement in a perfect cadence, while his tedious companion slobbers and runs in circles, bounding from one dandelion patch to another…circling to the right, pacing, circling to the right, pacing…on and on and on.

But there was a day. One walk out of thousands, when my middle child and I were out walking the dogs…and I saw an Eastern Bluebird. Being from Nebraska, I don’t have much experience with the beautiful birds that flutter around our neighborhood here in Virginia…all different colors and songs….I’m not used to it. “Son, did you see that?” I asked, pointing. My son stood beside me, laughing. When he stopped, a grin plastered to his face, he said, “I know, Apollo just turned left.” Zoolander, eat your heart out!!

My dog turned left…and I missed it. I’ve watched diligently on every walk since then, waiting for him to repeat the act. But Apollo seems more comfortable turning right. It’s unnatural for him to do anything else.

So I find myself once again taking a lesson from this monster of a canine. Do I want to be the sort of writer that “can’t turn left?” Or do I want to do more? Be more? I’m in the second book of my Detective Baker series…and I’m happy with the way things are shaping up. But other stories…set in other times in other places…are tickling the back of my mind. And I find myself wanting to test the mysterious waters where these other ideas swim. I nursed the characters for The Deputy’s Widow for years, coddling them to maturity and, eventually, publication. Suddenly, that obsession isn’t there because I accomplished my goal. I’m published. And I’ll be published again with the sequel, provided my editor likes it. Trying something new doesn’t feel comfortable just yet. But, unlike my dog, I have higher brain function (sometimes) and I think I might give “turning left” a try. So I’ll keep watching Apollo, hoping he’ll overcome his multi-directional challengedness…and I’ll consider shooting off in a new direction myself on occasion.

Tater Mitts

May 9, 2008

Tater Mitts.

Insomnia is a fickle thing. At times I’ll go for months unmolested by thoughts refusing to stay below the surface as I sleep. At other times, the beast rears its ugly head and I spend the night awake, tossing and turning and worrying about things over which I have no control. As I age, alongside my husband of 16 years, I can’t help but notice he’s afflicted with this condition on occasion as well. And even more interesting than this, is the fact that, once in awhile, we are afflicted at the same time.

I’m not sure which is worse…lying awake in the middle of the night as the clocks tick in an endless cadence, marking time that passes too slowly…or awakening an hour or two before dawn, wondering if going back to sleep is even worth the trouble.

Gone are the days when four in the morning felt like the middle of the night. Now I think about walking the dog or writing a chapter or blogging or answering e-mail. I think of all the productive things I could be doing with my time besides sleeping.

Last week, as my husband and I suffered a case of co-dependent early morning insomnia, we stumbled downstairs and cranked up the satellite as the coffee pot percolated and the dogs found comfy places on the sofa—clearly, insomnia is never a problem for a dog—to go back to sleep.

Infomercials dominate the airwaves before dawn, taking advantage of bleary-eyed insomniacs with promises that “This product will make your life easier…or your money back.”

Well, I love my Swiffer, but I can’t exactly say its made my life easier.

But that was before I heard about Tater Mitts. Have you heard of the Tater Mitts? Have you reserved your pair yet? Tater Mitts are a handy pair of gloves with steel wool on the outside. Just put on the gloves, pick up a potato, squish it around in your hands and…PRESTO!! The potato is free of that filthy peel.

I’m so stupid. All these years I’ve been using a potato peeler which could have flown out of my hands at any given moment and lodged in my neighbor’s eye. It’s true. I’ve been endangering the whole world with my reckless method of peeling potatoes.

Wouldn’t it be nice for writers if the reading public was as gullible as the infomercial quacks believe the entire world to be? I could say “Read my book-it will change your life.” Or I could pay people to say “You won’t believe the amazing things this book can do for you.” Or how about, “I never knew my life was so empty until I read “The Deputy’s Widow””

Nah, come to think of it, I wouldn’t respect an ignorant reading audience. I prefer readers who say, “I would have done this differently.” Or “This part was good, but try this.”

Writers live in a world where their product has to stand alone. The purpose of fiction can be one of two things: to prove a point, or to entertain. I prefer to read fiction for entertainment and I try to write fiction that accomplishes the same. I can’t promise a reader a good book and then not deliver. Why? Because readers are smart. And they read to be entertained. And they write reviews.

The morning of the Tater Mitts infomercial was rare. Normally, I pick up a book when I can’t sleep. I pick up a book and let myself sink into its world…because a writer is someone who delivers. There are no money-back guarantees. There are no paid celebrities with overly tight faces telling me this book will change my life. There’s just a writer’s work…and I know a little something about that…the sweat, the agony, the pressure.

You can keep your Tater Mitts. I’ll use a potato peeler and read a good book, thank you very much.