Falling in Love with a Story

I know when a book is working because I stop being the author and become a reader. This book, I like to read.

Dark Hat

After an hour of pointless ranting, Hardesty had convinced me he thought everyone in Northern Africa was potentially part of a Muslim plot. I’d have considered that racist, but the man thought pretty much the same about everyone in North America too. To his reckoning, our little Seize Mai contingent was no more than a fingerprint away from an Al Qaeda plot. It’s one thing to be a racist. It’s another, wholly indigestible subhuman trait to be despicable simply because no one ever taught you not to be a schmuck. Kevin Hardesty was a schmuck.

“Cain, you and your partner are interfering in a United States Government Operation.” I was no synesthete like Dark, but I could hear the capital letters in that declaration. I almost saluted out of habit.

“Boss, I keep telling you, we aren’t working on or interfering with your case in any way. Rather than come back home, me and Dark took a holiday in beautiful Casablanca.”

He bellowed some epithets that I was glad Dark couldn’t hear through the glass door. He went silent then, except for slurping on what had to be his tenth cup of Joe of the day. Actually, it was a Starbucks Tall Latte Mocha Something-or-Other, but I was in Casablanca and found myself channeling Bogart’s Rick Blaine by the minute. To me, Hardesty was no longer my obese Government COR, he was Kev Hardass, my stout Fed Bureau Chief, sipping on his cuppa Joe and trying bring his rogue agent, namely me, in line. I sort of sympathized with the poor sap, especially since he was knee-deep in a D.C. snowstorm while we were luxuriating in a Mediterranean clime and I knew there was nothing he could do about our actions short of creating an international incident by sending the troops into a friendly country.

“Cain, for the last time, tell me the truth. What the fuck are you doing in Casa, and how the hell did you know to go there? If you have someone here leaking you TS-SCI info, friend or not, I will have your ass and theirs.”

That stopped me in my tracks. I had zero idea to that point that the man considered me his friend. I can be as stubborn an ass as anyone, but I’m a sucker when it comes to loyalty. I’d started to fold just as Dark reentered the room. “Kevin, I promise, no one on the inside told us anything. Dark figured it out from some clues that Danni Rudenko dropped us.”

“Oh là là là là,” Dark said, throwing up her hands.

“What clues?” Hardesty asked. I gave Dark the hush sign, received the fuck-you sign in return, and then recapitulated the highlights of our interview with Danni, while my partner stood scowling at the phone with her arms crossed. When I’d finished, Hardesty said, “You’re in central Casablanca based on that meager information?”

I looked at Dark who called Hardesty something that sounded unconscionably harsh in German before stalking out the room’s front door. “I will see you downstairs,” she said and slammed the door behind her. That made me reconsider. She flat out didn’t trust him; friend or no, if Dark was suspicious then I needed to tread lightly.

“Cain, did you hear me?”

“No, sorry. Dark just stuck her head in to tell me we have an appointment.”

“I was saying that I don’t know how that woman does it, but she hit the nail on the head. Tell her I said she can work for me anytime.”

Editing Minute: Using a Reverse Dictionary

Since I get so many hits on my “Grammar Minute” posts, I’ve decided to start an “Editing Minute” series. They’re really more like 5-Minute posts, but that’s not as catchy a name. This first one points to a nice interwebs tool called “OneLook Reverse Dictionary.”

The concept is a simple one. One of the main goals of the editing process should be to tighten your language. Readers are busy people. A fast way to take them out of your story is to make them stumble over unneeded words. That’s where the reverse dictionary comes in. Unlike a normal dictionary, wherein you look up a word to find its precise meanings and usage, with a reverse dictionary you start at a concept and use the tool to find a more concise or precise way of stating it. Let’s look at a real editing example.

Here’s the original sentence:

“Her hips were barely covered by a tiny, asymmetrical skirt with a split all the way to her waist.”

Now, there’s an immediate marker that my editor’s eye should tell me I need to edit: the adverb, “barely.” Now, unlike Stephen King, I’m not allergic to adverbs, but they do often indicate there’s a better word or phrase that can be used. So, stuck for a word that’s more precise than “barely covered,” I pull up Reverse Dictionary:

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 10.38.34 AMThe tool is sometimes hit or miss, but right away, the 2nd verb strikes me: “feather.” That’s a possibility. I click on the word, which takes me to a set of dictionaries that I can use to verify my choice.

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 10.39.01 AMI use the American Heritage, as I’m writing this in US English. For UK usage, I’d likely pick Oxford. Clicking on it takes me to a Yahoo page with the following:

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 10.39.52 AM

Blah, blah, nouns, blah, and then to cover, dress, or decorate with or as if with feathers. That’s perfect. I want the feel of something short and diaphanous, and feathering will produce that image. I’m still not done, however. I’m not thrilled with “all the way to” her waist as originally written. Returning to the Reverse Dictionary produces the following:

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 10.47.52 AMNo good choices, alas. However, number 28 strikes me–“to.” Ah, I can simply strip out “all the way” and end up with the following sentence:

“Her hips were feathered by a tiny, asymmetrical skirt with a split to her waist.

Much better than the original sentence–it’s more visual and 4 words (21%) shorter. Try a reverse dictionary and let me know what you think.

Shut Up and Rub Me

An excerpt from my current work-in-progress, Jeanne Dark.

Dark CoverThe bathroom door opened and steam roiled out, bathing the room in warm, damp air. From its dark midst emerged Jeanne, lit by the flickering light from the living area as if she were a chimera, or perhaps a wounded angel, defrocked and sent limping to Earth. She was dressed in a flowing, white robe with her hair wrapped in a towel. It was ordinary hotel attire, yet she wore it as if she were an ancient Persian Princess and I her faithful servant. I’d doused the lights in the hotel room and substituted them with candles that were bright enough for her to see her way to the bed, but little else. I’d just turned off the lamps, and my eyes were still adjusting to the darkness when she approached. I regained my vision in time to see the creamy outline of her flesh through the sheer robe. I swept her up with my eyes, and for a moment, she met my gaze and the fog was no longer in the room, but in my mind, clouding out the thoughts I’d had of our case, our agreed professionalism, my reason. I realized, too late, that I’d not thought the setting in the room through. Behind me, Coltrane and Ellington conspired in playing “My Little Brown Book,” which added just enough heat that I feared the room might melt. That woman and her jazz were going to be the death of me.

“Merci pour l’éclairage,” Dark said, taking my hand so I could help ease her onto the bed. “It was very thoughtful.” My elementary French told me she was thanking me for dimming the lights. I breathed a sigh of relief that she didn’t think the setting was as full of romance as my thumping heart was telling me that it was. Dark removed her sunglasses once again. Even in the dim light, the gloriously large olive orbs were breathtaking. She lay on her side, briefly looking me in the eyes, and smiled. “You are full of compliments tonight,” she said.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Oui. You said plenty.” She turned on her stomach, reached underneath and undid her robe. My brain reminded me for the second time I hadn’t thought the scenario through. It was, however, way too late to turn on the lights and the television to break the mood. She pulled the robe over her shoulders and lifted her chin to me. “You can help, you know.” I gingerly eased the garment off her shoulders, to her mid-back, stopping at her hips. I could see a strap across her back that looked like a … “Do you like my bikini?” she asked.

The question startled me, because for a moment I thought the woman could see me out the back of her head. It would have been a natural evolution from her current set of gifts. I managed to stutter out a query as to why she had a bikini in London.

“I bought it the day we met, when you promised me a massage. I was beginning to think I’d never wear it.”

I settled in over her and began at her shoulders. Her fragrance stopped me. “Why do you smell like oranges and vanilla?”

She gave a throaty laugh. “Do I make you hungry?”

I muttered my answer under my breath. “You have no idea.”

I resumed work on her shoulders, but she turned, looking at me. “Is the rest of me too damaged for you to massage?”

“What? No, of course not.”

“Then, if you don’t mind, I’d rather you start with the bottom and work up. All the pain is from below the waist.”

“Should I pull your robe back up?”

“If I am ugly, oui.”

I pulled the damned thing the rest of the way off, revealing her slender frame, delicate skin, and slim legs. From head to toe, she smelled of the attar of orange petals. “Yeah, my pain is from below the waist too,” I said.

“Shut up and rub me,” she said. I could hear the smile in her voice.

Excerpt from Awakening: The Backwards Man

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I’m almost through my revision/tightening of Awakening, the 2nd book of The Stream, which I’ve tentatively retitled Grandfather Time. Since I’ve reached it, I thought I’d share my favorite scene.


Behind them, approaching from the lighted room, was a bizarre vision of a man being led by twin horrors. The man was tall and thin, his features concealed by a loosely fitting, hooded tunic. He wore likewise loose-fitting pants tied with a rope belt made of twisted gold strands. Both the tunic and pants were amethyst, giving him the bizarre appearance of a purple monk. On his head he wore a wide-brimmed hat, despite already being shielded by the hood. The hat rose into twin peaks, as if the hard leather had been placed over horns. The round brim stood as wide as his shoulders. Though standing in the lighted room, his face was concealed in shadows. As he moved forward into the darkness, the shadows grew, seeming to envelope him, as though he had become one with the surrounding murkiness.

His head, torso, and arms all faced forward, towards the group of rescuers as they rounded a turn and out of sight. Grotesquely, his hips, legs, and feet faced backwards toward his group of sycophants. He led a strange cortege of hook-nosed women with aggressively protruding breasts; the too tall, too thin, or too bent; human pincushions; and the diseased, dripping with open sores. All wore brightly colored clothing that was covered in drab brown robes or shawls. These beings marched in asynchronous, ludicrous fashion behind a small company of addled bodyguards dressed as harlequins with capes and long baggy robes. The guards held long, bent spears that ended in razor-edged points. At purely random increments, they would slice or stab one of the followers, or each other, eliciting both yelps of pain and a tittering chorus. As a result, none of the followers seemed to be actually watching Charlie or the backwards man, but were engrossed with mindlessly torturing each other.

The backwards man strode in the direction of what should have been forward but which appeared to be rearward, in pursuit of Charlie and his group. The hooded figures bony arms were extended, restraining the two snarling beasts that tested their iron chains. Each monstrosity had a broad chest and sturdy legs that ended in wide, padded feet that allowed them to move silently across the concrete floors. Their chests were no more than eighteen inches above the floor, but due to their enormous frame, the beasts stood five feet at the shoulders. Their heads were equally massive, with reptilian features that ended in a wide mouth full of two-inch teeth. The beasts were dull brown, with red striations on the sides of their heads that made them appear even angrier than their snarling, drooling demeanor asserted. They looked as if some hellish breeder had managed to graft a small Tyrannosaurus’ head on an oversized, lizardized bulldog’s frame.

“Fetch,” the backwards man said, in a voice that was simultaneously deep and effete. He released the hellhounds from his scrawny hands, and they bolted in snarling pursuit of Charlie’s group, their chains clattering behind.

Excerpt from Awakening

Here’s a quick excerpt from Awakening, in Chapter 22, “Henchen Henceforth Penchen.” The chapter’s title is the name of a pet rooster, named after my mom’s own pet rooster from her childhood. Fortunately, her childhood was different from my characters’.


The family stopped at a dingy, little shop off the main highway to pick up supplies they needed, while her dad talked to the locals and enjoyed a smoke outside. When he had finished smoking, he went inside, leaving the girls alone in the barren parking lot. They stopped on every weekend trip at Dusty’s Rhodeside Supplies, where Jimmy LeBeaux had become something of a regular. The two girls paced back and forth, idling in the desert heat, until their father had finished his business, along with his usual two more cigarettes and as many “cold ones with the boys” from the small fridge that Dusty kept hidden behind the counter next to a loaded shotgun. The girls were alone except for the occasional tumbleweed or roadrunner that eyed them warily from a distance. After twenty minutes, Jimmy called in Reyna to show off how pretty his daughter was. Robin followed her in, although she wasn’t certain her dad remembered he had a second daughter.

“Yeah, she’s a looker, Jimmy,” Dusty Rhodes—his actual name—said, giving the thirteen year old Reyna an inappropriate leer. Reyna drew in her body tensely, as if his eyes could actually touch her skin, and made a sour face. “You’re gonna be chasing the boys off’n her with a shotgun in a couple years.”

“Hell no I ain’t,” Jimmy said. “Ain’t nobody gonna mess with my baby girl. Ain’t nobody that stupid.” He laughed and placed his hand on Reyna’s shoulder. Reyna stiffened, but did not otherwise react.

Robin stood in a corner of the cramped store, pretending to be interested in the merchandise on the shelves, but, in actuality, was just enjoying the limited cooling ability of the big swamp coolers nearby. Her dad’s truck had air conditioning, but he refused to use it, claiming it burned too much gas and overtaxed his diesel engine. As she watched her sister looking as if she were caught in a poacher’s trap, she realized how obviously Reyna hated being there, and wondered why her dad never seemed to notice. Then again, she figured, noticing his daughters’ needs was never one of her father’s strong suits.

Finally, when the beer ran out, Jimmy LeBeaux wrapped his bony arm around Reyna’s waist, and announced they had to get to work.

“Why don’tchu brang that pretty wife of your’n down sometime, Jimmy?” Dusty asked. “Me and the wife would love to have y’all over. The wife makes a mean pot roast, and I know for a fact you’re sick of all that damn Mexican food.”

“That’s for damn sure,” Jimmy said, his tobacco-stained teeth showing.

“We’ll cook you up some good ole Texas chili—get you some American food for a change.”

Robin glared at Dusty and considered telling him that she was pretty sure that Albuquerque, her mom’s birthplace, was still in America, but caught Reyna’s cautionary look, and held her tongue. She expected her father to come to her mom’s defense—after all, she and Reyna were part Mexican themselves—but Jimmy only laughed.

“We might do just that some time,” Jimmy said laughing. “I’ll bring you some green chiles so you can spice that Texas chili up New Mexico style, he said. Me and the girls are gonna be harvesting real soon—looks like no more’n a couple of weeks.” He walked to the door, and gestured for Robin and Reyna to go out to the truck. As Reyna turned, Jimmy playfully patted her on her round butt and said, “See, she gets that from her mom. Being Mexican does have some usefulness you know. I sure have me some fun with her mom, if you get my drift.” He and the men all laughed as Jimmy joined his daughters in the dusty parking lot and loaded the rest of the supplies in the bed of the large truck.

As they started on their way, Robin offered from the back seat, “Tio Carlos always says that if you’re part Mexican, you’re all Mexican. He says that once you’re part of a Mexican family you belong 100 percent. So, that means that me and Reyna are Mexican too. Even you, Daddy.” Robin hoped that her logic would persuade her father to not associate with men who seemed to dislike her people.

To her disappointment, but not surprise, he said, “Your ‘Tio’ Carlos is an idiot.” As he said “Tio,” he made quotation marks with his fingers, two of which held another cigarette. The gesture made Robin nervous, as he took both hands off the steering wheel to do so.

“Tio Carlos has a law firm, Dad, and he makes more money than, like, all the LeBeauxes put together,” Reyna said in his defense.

Barely looking, Jimmy LeBeaux reached over and slapped Reyna on the side of her face. “Don’t smart mouth me, little girl,” he said, exhaling acrid smoke in her direction. Robin jerked back in her seat with a start and began crying. Reyna however, kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead and neither moved a muscle nor made a sound.

“You shut the hell up back there, little girl, or I swear to God we will be eating roast rooster for dinner tonight.”

Robin began to weep harder, but had enough experience to do so silently. She wished to herself that she could be as strong as her big sister, who was surreptitiously soothing her younger sister by reaching back and stroking her leg.

Types of Editing

I’ve written about editing a number of times, including listing the different types of editing. Since the last time I laid this out was two years ago, I thought I’d republish a portion of a prior post that lists different kinds, should any of you be in the market for hiring an editor.

  • Developmental Editing – sometimes lumped in with substantive editing – according to the Freelance Editorial Association, this is the process of helping a writer to develop a novel from concept through any one of the initial drafts. I love this part of story telling most of all. I bounce book ideas off my best friends, and find brainstorming helpful, so the thought of paying someone to help me come up with an idea seems alien to me.  However, if you’re better at execution than ideas, this can help. It’s particularly useful in developing non-fiction material; a good developmental editor can help you go from idea to execution, especially if you don’t write for a living.
  • Substantive  Editing – this is sometimes referred to as ghostwriting editing. This editor helps with clarity, organization, writing/rewriting portions of the text for readability, etc. Given the time and skill involved, paying $0.75 per word isn’t atypical. Much “works-for-hire” editing, tech editing, etc. falls into this category. Having done about 10 years of this, I can assure you that the writer does give up a modicum of control here. Frankly, there is a great deal of trust that the editor can make the book better. For instance, were I Stieg Larsson’s SE, I would have pushed him to take out around 100 pages’ worth of character backgrounds from his Millennium trilogy (per book). As you can imagine, the process can be contentious, so when you hire one, ensure A) you can work together effectively, and B) you both understand and agree on the scope of the editing involved.
  • Copyediting / Line Editing – this is just as important and not as controversial. Copyediting covers grammar, spelling, syntax, word usage, inconsistencies, etc.–the fundamentals of good structural writing.  Just as important, this covers style issues with writing. Not surprisingly, this is where many writers stumble and where it is VERY easy to lose a reader. Trust me, being good at grammar helps, but it doesn’t mean copyediting is unneeded. I find at most 80% of my own mistakes. I even found 3 in this paragraph. Rates vary, often $0.05 – $0.25 per word, depending on what you want done. Do talk with your editor beforehand so that you understand (and can live with) each others’ style choices. (As a good friend once told me, spelling “a lot” allot once is an error; doing it 100 times is a choice.)
  • Proofreading – Often confused with copyediting, this is basically light error correction, typos, checking the “proof” to be published for errors. Anyone should do this, if possible, before publishing. Prices vary, but $0.05 per word isn’t unreasonable. Proofreading is NOT a substitute for copyediting.
“Okay, but the wife ain’t gonna be happy.”

Writing in Layers

Probably the most significant thing I’ve learned about the process of writing fiction is to learn how to paint. No, I’m not talking about painting with oils or acrylics–I’m referring to painting with lyrical brushstrokes.

Getting the story down is much like laying the foundation layers of a painting. It doesn’t matter if you do a detailed sketch or simply start by washing in the background with broad brush strokes. What matters is that in the initial layer, you get the main idea across. In writing, it means painting the story. If you are anything like me, conveying a story intelligently and simply is hard enough. Even with an outline, taking the story in your head and bringing it to life is hard. Refining the work into a piece akin to literature takes editing.

Now, I know writers and teachers advocate not editing until you’ve finished writing. Not only do I disagree, I think that’s the dumbest damned advice I could give you. Of course you should edit, every time you read it, until it’s done. It’s never done. I read the previous day’s work and edit as I go, ensuring the new work has the feel of the previous, and keeping the right smooth and even. Once the story’s skeleton is written, I can replace the stolid writing of my initial layer with something more like the jazz I hear in my head. Layers, layers, layers.

Here’s a piece I published before I recognized there were layers left to paint. I’ve started “finishing” the work today. Hopefully when I finish, the book will feel like a work of art instead of just … a book.

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Here’s what I started with:

Charlie Patterson was dreaming with his best friend, Robin. Most teenage boys were limited to dreaming about beautiful girls, but not Charlie. His dreams were vivid, tactile, powerful, and emotional. In a word, they were real. Better than that, when Charlie dreamed of Robin, it was usually because she was right there, with him, in the dream.

They stumbled across the Stream, the limitless world of dreams and fantasy, during the summer prior to his twelfth birthday. In so doing, they had found each other, and created a bond that went beyond friendship. They were the One, a pair of dream travelers who, it was foretold, would restore the balance of good and evil, of light and darkness in the Stream. One day. For now, however, they were just two kids playing around in a world where one’s brightest imagination or deepest fears could come to light.

It was twilight in the part of the Stream in which they found themselves. Charlie was seated in a long, narrow boat on a still lagoon. The landscape was serene, comprising forested lands that bordered the wide lake, with mountains that rose behind them. It was spring here too, Charlie noted, as the trees that dotted the mountainsides were populated with new foliage. The air was thick and humid, though not unpleasant. Low clouds hung in the air, close enough that the tops of the mountains were obscured. The sun had descended behind the mountain toward which they drifted, and its light painted the sky a muted pink that was reflected in the mirror-like lake.

Away from the westward sky, the landscape had turned violet, with the thick fog drifting over the treetops. It gave the lagoon an odd duality, with half the landscape bright and cheery, and half dark and ominous.

Fine, but a little dry, no? Okay, it kind of sucks.

Here’s how it reads now (so far):

Most teenage boys were limited to dreaming about beautiful girls, but not Charlie Patterson. His dreams were vivid, tactile, and emotional. More importantly, these forays into the chimeric world of reimagined pasts and dragon presents were as tangible as his morning rides to school. One wrong move, a bad twist, an unconquered fear and Charlie knew he wouldn’t be waking up again. It was glorious. Better still, in most of his dreams, he was accompanied by his best friend, Robin, the literal girl of his dreams.

They’d stumbled across the Stream—the limitless world of dreams and fantasy—during the summer prior to his twelfth birthday. In so doing, they found each other and created a bond that went beyond friendship. They were the One, a pair of dream travelers who, it was foretold, would one day restore the balance of light and darkness in the Stream. For now, however, they were just two kids playing around in a world where one’s brightest imagination or deepest fears could come to pass.

Charlie was seated in a long boat on a still lagoon, wishing Robin would sit still for once. The long shadows of trees stretched across the broad lake interspersed by bright stars of sunlight that danced through the wind-blown leaves. Beyond the lake in a long arc, snow-capped mountains scraped the underbellies of low-hanging clouds until the clouds surrendered, fell as fog, and began to obscure the mountains’ peaks. It was spring here too, Charlie noted, as the trees that dotted the mountainsides were populated with the bright lavender of new foliage. The air was thick and humid, though not unpleasant. It was nearing dusk and the waning sunlight painted the sky a muted pink that was reflected in the mirror-like lake. Away from the westward sky, the landscape had already changed to midnight purple with thick fog roiling down the mountains and drifting over the treetops. It gave the lagoon an odd duality, with half the countryside bright and cheery and half dark and ominous.

Still needs work, but at least I don’t need a glass of water to wash it down. Layer, layer, layer. Even better, with layering comes clarity. The first two paragraphs will almost certainly just be deleted. Start in the middle and make it sing; that’s the goal.