Saturday, February 11, 2017

Writing Distractions – Not All Bad

Most aspiring authors have real lives outside of writing. Even I do.  I often wonder if life gets in the way of writing, or if writing requires having a life, but that’s a much larger topic than what this post is about.

There are very few things I’d rather do than write. I find it relaxing, challenging, and satisfying. Yet, a number of distractions easily take me away from writing.  I’m not talking about time with family and friends.  They always take priority.  I’m referring to distractions I face while actually at my desk.
My office has an expansive window with long-range views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I’m fortunate to have such a serene setting in which to think and compose.  I frequently gaze out this window, distracted by the natural beauty of the trees and faraway hills.  In the winter months, days pass without seeing another person, but rarely a day goes by without seeing a herd of deer wandering through my view.  It’s an interesting dichotomy.  The quiet and solitude which make this a great place to write often has me focusing elsewhere.
Research is a large part of writing, even for a fiction writer.  The internet puts sources of information at my fingertips. With one keystroke, I can switch from composing a novel on Microsoft Word to searching a range of topics on Google, Bing, or Yahoo. While this is infinitely more productive than going to the library and digging through periodicals, internet research also presents a risk.  The risk is never getting back to writing.  One minute, I’m verifying the location of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and the next minute, I’m buying a lawn trimmer off Home Depot’s website or reading my book reviews on Amazon.
I’ve concluded these distractions can actually be constructive.  While writing requires deep concentration to ensure continuity, consistency, and correctness, it also requires an inventive and open mind.  I am able to write head-down for an hour at most. Any longer, and I lose my imagination and my writing grows stale.  It’s at these times a cup of coffee is in order.  I’ll return to my desk to sip coffee and enjoy the views out my window, or maybe read an interesting article on my laptop.  These breaks often refresh my thoughts, enabling me to return for another period productive writing.
I must admit there are days when I stare out my window, never focusing on my writing, and that’s not all bad.  If my mind’s not into writing, I’d probably produce garbage anyway.  Oh, look!  My nephew just posted pictures of his new puppies on Facebook.  I’ll finish this post later.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Does a novel need to deliver a message?

Does a novel need to deliver a message or lesson, or can it succeed on entertainment value alone?
Most of the books I read are suspenseful crime novels or legal thrillers.  I enjoy Michael Connelly, John Grisham, James Patterson, Vince Flynn and many others.  At times, these authors insert political or social messages, but they seldom detract from the main theme or plot of their book.  The messages are usually used to provoke thought, develop a character, or possibly create conflict.
Complex messaging is not needed for romance novels (or other genres) to be popular. That’s not why readers buy these books.  I doubt romance authors begin their stories with the intent of bringing attention to world hunger or saving homeless animals.  Still, an antagonist who verbally or physically punishes his partner in a romance novel can shine a light on the evils of domestic abuse, delivering a message within the context of the story.
I believe a fiction writer’s objective is to entertain. Readers come back to a given genre because they enjoy what it delivers: fantasy, suspense, romance or adventure. It’s difficult to write a fiction novel with a political, social, or religious message as its main theme. The few I’ve read kept dragging me back to the message, not giving me, as the reader, a chance to fully engage in the characters or the story.  I also think an author who continues to use his/her novels to convey messages and lessons risks becoming known for promoting specific causes, and not for writing.
So, does a novel need a message?  I liken messages in a novel to salt on a good meal.  If sprinkling a few messages throughout a novel enhances the reader’s experience and doesn’t overwhelm the main story, then I say season to taste.      

Friday, January 27, 2017

Persistence - It's Necessary, but not Sufficient.

I have a master’s degree in mathematics, and I followed it up with 32 years in sales and marketing for the same multinational company.  You may ask what either of these facts has to do with writing novels, but bear with me.  There is a connection.
Years ago, I was fortunate to retire with mileage still on my tires.  For the first time in my life, I had an abundance of free time. I filled it with many things, some productive, some not.  The most creative activity I pursued was writing.  I’d always wanted to write, but writing a novel required time, something I now had.  
I took on this venture knowing the odds of producing a published novel, or for that matter a novel that would be read beyond my small sphere of friends, were low.  After all, I spent six years studying mathematics.   The formula is fairly simple.  You take 200,000 new books written each year as the denominator and a couple dozen best sellers as the numerator, and you can calculate that 1 out of 10,000 authors might have his/her books read by someone outside their hometown.   I know there’s a middle ground for success between bestseller and throwing the manuscript in the garbage, but you get the point.  It’s hard.
So why did I think I could write a novel?  That’s where persistence comes in.  Anyone who works 32 years for the same company doesn’t give up easily.   A career is not a smooth uphill climb.  There are plateaus and even slippery downhill slides along the way, but if you keep moving forward with your eyes on the finish line, you’ll eventually get there.   It’s not unlike writing.   There are periods where the words flow, the characters develop, and the story explodes with action.  Then there are days where the page sits blank, or worse, you decide to scrap a chapter and start over.  
As I anticipated, my persistence paid off.   Over the past six years, I have self-published four novels and two short story collections.  None are bestsellers.  In fact, I’m often frustrated with the pace of sales.  After three decades in sales and marketing, it’s where I’ve faced my biggest challenges.  My books are all professionally edited, and naturally, I feel they’re well written.  I’ve received dozens of favorable book reviews, as well as contest recognition for several of my short stories. 
I’ve concluded that to be a successful writer, as measured by book sales, it not only requires a well-written book, it takes a cadre of support services.  You need to identify your target market, deliver well-written books that hit that target, construct a multifaceted marketing plan, and commit sufficient resources to execute your plan.   Most importantly, I’ve learned persistence is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Authors, do your characters resemble you?

Should authors channel their personalities and experiences into their characters?  
It took me five novels to ask this question, and when I did, I realized something.   My protagonists are pretty much alike, and for the most part, they have my values.  I even share a few experiences with them, and friends who know me well say my characters reflect my personality at times.  I believe it’s natural to reveal your experiences, thoughts, and beliefs through your characters, but I do this sparingly.  My protagonists are younger, braver and more cunning than I am. They find themselves in situations I hope never to face and react as only they could.
It’s obviously not necessary for authors to share the values of their protagonists, but I’ve found it makes it easier to get inside the heads of my fictional characters and to have them think and act naturally.  Consistency is important in making characters believable.  What better way to stay consistent than creating characters who think like you?  I know the counterargument is that truly great authors can relate to any character they create.  Stephen King isn’t a maniacal killer, and my guess is he wouldn’t be friends with many of the bizarrely malevolent characters he’s created, yet he’s been successful in producing suspenseful thrillers for many years.
I’ve written short stories where the protagonists are greedy brokers, thieves, or even pets. I’ve never been any of these.  I admit it’s more difficult to develop these diverse characters and have them think and act consistently throughout the story.  I often find my personality working its way into their character, requiring revisions.  Still, I enjoy the challenge and have received contest recognition for some of these stories.           
Some authors have had successful careers creating characters that make repeat appearances in their novels:  Michael Connelly has Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, Sue Grafton created Kinsey Millhone, and even though John Grisham varies their names, many of his characters are crafty male attorneys.  I haven’t spoken to Connelly, Grafton, or Grisham, but I expect they easily relate to the characters they’ve created.  Connelly was a crime beat reporter in Los Angeles, where Bosch is a criminal detective and Haller an attorney.  Grisham was a successful criminal defense lawyer before writing legal thrillers.
Miles Stevens, Sam Stone and Phil Greenfield are the protagonists in my novels.  I can easily see them sitting down for a cup of coffee, discussing their adventures.  They have a lot in common with each other and apparently, with me, too.  I’ve concluded that’s a good thing.   
Protagonists in D.R. Shoultz novels:
Miles Stevens is the lead character in the Miles Stevens Series, which includes MELTNG SAND, CYBER ONE, and GONE VIRAL (to be released in 2017).  Miles is a 37-year-old Yale law grad and former U.S senator who gives up his political career after the tragic deaths of his daughter and wife.  He turns to the CIA and the recently formed Department of Historic Intervention (DHI) as a way to escape his grief.  A strong, tough-minded CIA agent, Miles and his DHI partners are sent back in time from the year 2050 to alter historic disasters.   
Sam Stone, the lead character in CORRUPT CONNECTION, is at the peak of his career, recently widowed and losing interest in life, when he meets Dr. Britney Young, a recently hired, beautiful and brilliant researcher at MemOne, Inc.  Sam is a low-profile, self-confident, fit but not athletic, 48-year-old sales executive when he’s thrown into the role of protecting Britney and MemOne from a deadly drug cartel.  Britney and the company’s biocomputer technology are targeted by the cartel to advance their illegal drug trafficking.  Fearing the threats against Britney, Sam works alone as he transforms into a fearless guardian and investigator.
Phil Greenfield is a handsome, silver-haired, divorced, 60-year-old retiree and the main character in BETTER LATE THAN EVER.  Phil sells his successful technology firm and retires to The Glades, a futuristic retirement community in Florida, seeking maintenance-free living, unlimited golf and sunsets by the pool.  Instead, he discovers the residents are fixated on reclaiming their youth through an underworld of medications and surgical procedures.  Phil meets an old flame, Sue, and the flame is rekindled.  Looking much younger than her age, Phil learns Sue is also under the influence of these drugs.  Tempted to join Sue and the others on their youthful journey, Phil becomes suspicious that there’s more to the story of The Glades. Unfortunately, he is right.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

E-readers vs. Real Books - It's Not Even Close

Technological advancements are intended to make workers more productive and the lives of average, everyday people easier.  However, I’m concerned some of these technologies are diminishing, or even destroying, those things that have brought us comfort and warmth. To prove my point, look no further than e-books.
Personally, I prefer the look and feel of a hardcover book.  Holding a novel in my hands creates a bond between me and the author.  I get the feeling the author intended for me to have it, to read it, and to share my thoughts about his/her work.   It’s hard to evoke the same emotions with an e-book.
There’s also nothing more relaxing than going to your local bookstore or library on a rainy day, especially if they serve coffee and pastries.  After perusing the shelves for your favorite authors, you select a novel and settle into a soft chair and enjoy a brew and your book.  You’re in a cocoon, oblivious to what’s going on beyond the walls of the building. Electronic bookstores and libraries may save you the drive and allow you to download any book you desire, but what’s the point?
I also like owning books, real 400-page novels. I know this may make me sound a bit materialistic, but I enjoy seeing my book collection lining the shelves of my living room and office, knowing I’ve read them (or at least most of them).  Over the years, I’ve collected books by my favorite authors, many first edition copies. (There are worse things to collect. I knew a guy who collected train lanterns.)  I even enjoy finding new and exotic bookends to complement and better organize my collection. Seeing e-books lined on the library page of my e-reader just doesn’t give me the same sensation.
My wife has passed many of the books she cherished as a child down to our grandkids.  These books contain handwritten notes and dates.  She has read some of these books to them at bedtime as her parents and grandparents had done with her, turning the same pages and making the same comments about the illustrations.  Try recapturing these moments with an e-reader.  
As a self-published author, one of my favorite ways to promote my books is to participate in book signings.  Discussing my writing and handing a reader a signed copy of my book creates a connection that can’t be recreated with e-books.  Without a physical book, such events would be meaningless.  I hope it never comes to that.
I get it.  E-books have their advantages.  They are cheaper and easier to access over the internet.  E-readers are lightweight and travel better than hauling two or three hardcover novels.  It’s more convenient to read an e-reader in bed with the lights off and not disturb whoever may be lying next to you.  Libraries and bookstores require expensive brick and mortar buildings to store the books, while e-books can reside inexpensively on electronic media.    
Even with all the benefits of e-books, I can’t imagine a world without libraries or homes without bookshelves.  I can’t imagine spending hundreds of hours writing a novel and not being able to hand a signed copy to a reader.   Most of all, I can’t imagine a child growing up without flipping the pages of “Green Eggs and Ham” while giggling at the same pages her grandmother found funny.         

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Air Travel - Can it get any worse?

My wife and I returned to our home in North Carolina after traveling more than 3,500 miles by air and 2,000 miles by car over the holidays.  The visits with our family members went well, and for the most part, the weather cooperated.  I’m grateful for the time with family and for our safe trips, but the service we received on our roundtrip flight from Charlotte to Phoenix was less than gratifying.     
I won’t specify which airline we used.  What we experienced happens on most carriers.  In my opinion, many of the changes to the airline industry in recent years have been made without regard to customer service or convenience.  My wife and I were victims of most of these changes.
I booked our flight six weeks in advance and scheduled it well before Christmas to avoid crowded weekend holiday travel.  With over 80,000 miles in my account, I tried to use frequent flyer miles to pay for the trip but found my miles would cover very little of the expense.  Oddly, I get a lot of emails encouraging me to use my FF miles for magazines and passes to airline lounges.  I guess they’d rather I pay to fly.     
When I went to book the flight online, I couldn’t get adjoining seats for me and my wife without paying extra fees for the available seats.  It seems sitting next to your family members is now considered a “perk.”  I was instructed to wait until check-in to see if adjoining seats were available.  They weren’t, so my wife and I sat 20 rows apart.
We were asked at the check-in kiosk if we wanted to purchase additional flight perks.  We saw no reason to pay for exit row/bulkhead legroom or early boarding privileges.  I laughed out loud when asked to pre-pay for additional FF miles.  We had decided to pack one large bag, allowing us to travel unencumbered without carry-ons, so paying $25 for checked luggage was unavoidable.
We got our boarding passes and checked our bag 90 minutes prior to departure, allowing plenty of time to make it to our gate.  As the departure time approached, the gate area began to resemble a 1965-era Greyhound bus station.  Passengers dressed in everything from parkas to pajama pants, not-so-service-looking service dogs, and runny-nosed kids in double-wide strollers flooded the area. It appeared my wife and I may have been the only passengers to check a bag.  The hundreds of travelers gathering were transporting their possessions in every possible container: backpacks, shopping bags, taped-up Amazon boxes, overstuffed travel bags, and purses the size of duffle bags.  Boarding reminded me of the Oklahoma Land Rush with passengers scrambling to stake claims to overhead storage.  Ridiculously oversized bags had to be checked at the gate, further clogging up the process.    
Thirty minutes later, I reached my seat. Every storage area within several rows had been claimed.  Fortunately, I only needed to find room to park my butt.  As I took my seat, I felt others were benefitting from me checking my bag.  Shouldn’t I get a sticker or something recognizing my contribution?
During the flight, I purchased a $7 gag-in-the-throat sandwich and $2 headphones to drown out the baby crying in the center section to my right.  The guy seated next to me pulled out his backpack from under his seat at least a dozen times, violating my space.  It was four hours of my life I’ll never get back.   
After landing and waiting 15 minutes for my wife to work her way from row 32C up the jet bridge, we arrived at Sky Harbor Airport luggage claim.  Although we’d boarded a non-stop flight from Charlotte to Phoenix at 9:00 a.m., we soon learned our bag boarded a non-stop flight to St. Maarten in the British Virgin Islands.  Even though we checked in 90 minutes early, the baggage handlers didn’t use the time to get our bag to the correct plane.  Airport code PHX must get confused with SXM.
I was impressed the airline knew where our bag was, and assumed it would just be a matter of putting it on the next plane back to Phoenix.  It was to be my first miscalculation of airline competency.  Following comments by the lost luggage agent about our bag reaching the better vacation destination, we were given toiletries in a zip-lock bag and a website address to track the status of our luggage.
After waiting nearly one day with no update, I called to insist that someone from the airline contact the airport in St. Maarten.  The bag was still there!  It took a total of 2 ½ days for our luggage to be returned.  During this time, the airline’s lost baggage website never reflected a change in status, and no one from the airline called us.  I assumed our $25 baggage fee would be automatically returned.  Wrong again!  I was told I needed to fill out an online request for the refund.
We were only in Phoenix for four nights and five days, so not having our luggage for most of our visit was a significant inconvenience.  It seemed reasonable to expect we wouldn’t be charged for baggage on our return flight to Charlotte.  Once again, I was wrong.
Our return flight was an hour late out of Phoenix while we sat in a crowded waiting area at the end of a terminal servicing five gates. The backup in flights had the area resembling a refugee processing center.  Eventually, we and our bag made it back to Charlotte.  As we loaded onto the waiting parking lot transportation, I was glad the next leg of our holiday journey was by car.    

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Holiday Letter

I write a holiday letter most years and include it with our Christmas card to friends and family who we see rarely throughout the year.  You probably receive a few of these.  I find them informative and well-meaning, but there are some that go too far and should be stamped Warning! TMI.  
Ours is usually less than one page (12 font, 1.5 spacing).   I mention vacations, status of the family pet, and maybe the publication of my latest book.  Mostly, it’s just to say we’re well and looking forward to the coming year.  
I’ve seen some holiday letters that border on autobiographies, multiple pages in length, requiring bulk postage.  As you read them, it makes you wonder how anyone could pack that much activity into a single year or even how they were able to remember it all.  I appreciate them taking the time to compose the letter and include me on their mailing list, but I’m not sure all the information is intended for my consumption.
Trying to make one letter apply to a diverse mailing list of friends and family is one of the dangers of the holiday letter.  The “need to know” varies greatly for each recipient.  Your wife’s electrolysis might be okay to share with her sisters, but your Great Uncle Henry probably doesn’t appreciate the need, nor does he care about the results.  Similarly, last fall’s septic tank backup during your wife’s high school reunion might be humorous to your college buddies, but should be left out of the letters to your boss and pastor.              
Another pitfall of the annual holiday letter is sounding boastful.  I can understand wanting to make these letters upbeat, but not everyone cares what a great deal you got on your new Lexus LS400.  In fact, there are many who believe any car that doesn’t come from Detroit represents a threat to the U.S. economy.  Also, I’m sure your wife might be thrilled to get her fifth David Yurman bracelet to stack on her right wrist, but 90% of the population wouldn’t know David Yurman from David Bowie. 
My simple rules for holiday letters are: keep them short, focus on people and events rather than things, and if it doesn’t apply to everyone, leave it out.  Admittedly, these rules may lead to a dull, lifeless letter, but you aren’t going for a Pulitzer.   The objective is to start next year with as many friends as you had at the end of this one.