Monday, January 29, 2018

Nick Korolev, Author and Part-Time Commodore

Author, illustrator and naturalist Nick Korolev is a New Jersey native now living in West Virginia. He’s also a very interesting guy! Nick and I both have short stories in the upcoming SPRING INTO SCI-FI anthology.

1)  Welcome, Nick. You’ve been a writer for quite a long time. Am I correct, that your first short story was published when you were just 14 years old? How did that come about?

I started writing for my own pleasure when I was 12 and discovered the power of words and joy of story telling.  I was always an avid reader.  By that age was reading adult novels and short story collections in a variety of genres, mostly scifi by Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, plus the classics from Melville and Jack London to Conrad and Hemingway. 

I was put ahead in an honors creative writing class a month after that short story was published in the fiction section of the now defunct national publication Popular Dogs.  The creative writing teacher, Mrs. Engle, advised I should become a writer.

2)  Your bio says you were born in New Jersey, but you now reside in West Virginia. I live outside Philadelphia, so I’ve spent a lot of time living and working in New Jersey. What do you miss most about the Garden State? (Personally, I’d miss diners and Taylor Pork Roll -- much better than Pennsylvania's Scrapple!) And what do you have in West Virginia that you’d miss if you moved elsewhere?

That is kind of a long and crazy story.  I moved from NJ to Sedona, AZ to help care for my mother who had a developed nasty crippling disease called polymyositis that affects the muscles.  I spent nine years there.  It was great in that I am both an artist (mostly wildlife, portraits, cartoons and illustrations) as well as a writer and found Sedona to be a great arts colony.  I learned both play and screenwriting for which I have won awards.  I ended up in West Virginia because my mother wanted to spend her last years closer to my sister, who lives in Jefferson County.

The thing I miss most about the Garden State is the shore, canoeing the Pine Barrens and really fresh seafood. As to what I would miss in West Virginia, it would be the mountain wilderness, my friends and the people I work with at schools and the state park.

3)  Well, anyone who misses the Pine Barrens might enjoy this excellent collection of crime stories by Jen Conley.  I also interviewed her, here.

Nick, you’re also a student of the U.S. Civil War. Is West Virginia a good state for Civil War aficionados? And what is the Federal Generals Corps about?

West Virginia is a great place for Civil War history.  The state was born during the war, from counties that wanted no part of the Virginia lowlands, which sided with the Confederacy.  The mountain counties were also tired of their tax money supporting the rich planters and their road systems, with nothing for the western counties. So they seceded from VA, becoming an official state June 20, 1863. There were quite a few battles here, like the Union victory of Droop Mountain that ended major Confederate attempts of control of the new state.

The Federal Generals Corps is a group of living historians that portray famous military officers, politicians and civilians from the Union side of the Civil War.  It involves picking a historic person you resemble, studying their biography and their place in the war, gathering up the proper clothing, etc.  You essentially become that persona for the public, which involves a little acting.  It is a way of teaching history that is far better than what you read in school history books.  We camp out at and present programs at historic sites in PA, VA, and WV. 

I now only portray Commodore John Winslow who commanded the USS Kearsarge that sank the Confederate raider CSS Alabama off Cherbourg, France.  What most people are not taught in school is that, for the US Navy, the Civil War was essentially a world war. The Union could never have won without the US Navy gaining control of the coasts and the Mississippi River, plus sinking the Confederate raiders that attacked Union merchant ships at sea.  Studying maritime history and the politics of the time will also prove that slavery was the cause of the war.  I can make my talks very real having grown up in a boating family and having been out on a tall ship.  I portray the only naval officer in our group.

4)  Let’s get to your books. What is your latest book about?

My latest book, Ghost of a Chance, is a bit of a departure from my usual maritime historical fiction, fantasy and scifi. It is a political satire and ghost story all rolled into one. It’s about a young West Virginia progressive freshman senator, Frank Barnes, who is running on a third party ticket for President against a corrupt Republican incumbent and a not-much-better Democrat contender.  He is running last in the polls when his friend gives him an antique book for his birthday. The book was once was the library of Theodore Roosevelt, his favorite president (and mine).  The book comes with Teddy’s ghost, who is bound and determined to help Frank in his run for POTUS. This, of course, results in a wild ride.  The book is either hilariously funny or scary depending on the politics of the reader.  Every chapter starts with a famous quote from TR.  I do not belong to any political party but always vote.  If there is a message in this novel it is to get out and vote. 

This novel was originally a screenplay that I wrote back in 2011 for competition in the 2012 Appalachian Film Festival competition (I won with entries in 2005 and 2010).  With the results of the last election, I decided to turn the screenplay into a novel and remarket it.  Mockingbird Lane Press, a small independent traditional publisher, contracted for it last spring and it was just released in Dec. 2017.  So far it has gotten 5 star reviews on Amazon for both paperback and e-books.  I am doing everything I can to get it marketed but can not afford a publicist to get it out there. I am hoping it gets 20 reviews so Amazon helps in marketing.

5)  Well, perhaps this interview will result in some more reviews for Ghost of a Chance – just click on the link!

Nick, your work spans a number to historical periods: the Civil War, the life and presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, the sinking of the U.S.S. Lusitania in 1915, and modern day. How do you keep the historical aspects straight? I’m currently working on a detective novel during the Great Depression, and I’m always having to check as to the price of goods and services, what people wore, and even how they spoke.

I learned a long time ago that when you write anything historical you must research everything on the era to make it believable and bring the era alive from politics to living expenses to clothing and more.  This should be done first along with developing your basic plot.  It is the same attention to detail you need to do in world and technology building in scifi.  If you work on a historical fiction that takes place in the not too distant past, talking to people who lived through the time also helps.

6)  West Virginia is not known for having a lot of writers. One of my nieces attended the University of West Virginia, and I decided to send her a gift of books by West Virginia authors. At the time, all I could find was the sole collection by the late, great Breece D’J Pancake. Do you have a community of writers out there to bounce ideas off and critique your work?

I am sort of the resident alien in that I was not born here.  There is a West Virginia Writers Association, but that is way down near Charleston, WV, too far for me to go for meetings so I have not joined yet.  I sometimes use beta readers but I am my own critic most of the time and am very fussy what I think will work. I always ask myself, has this been done before? Is it best as a novel, short story or stage or screenplay? Would enough people be interested in the story? Sometimes I bounce ideas off friends.  I have a file of aborted projects in different genres.

There are a few local writers, but they work alone with relatives as critics and most self-publish. To me (and agents) self-publishing is not much above using a vanity press and cannot be used as a credit when looking for an agent or publisher if one is serious about a writing career. 

New writers are lured in by keeping more of the price, but that is quickly eaten up by costs of more printing and marketing.  Besides, they have not “paid their dues,” proving the quality of their work through competition, being printed in literary journals and anthologies, etc.  Most “newbies” want to get around rejections and the (often) years of honing their skills to start breaking into print. 

Everyone today is in too much of a rush.  I have always believed you don’t serve a good wine before its time and you must be prepared for a batch to go bad now and then and realize sometimes work is not worth publishing -- especially a first try.  People will not like this opinion, but I have observed enough to know it is true and have a sister who is a professional editor who used to work for an independent traditional book publisher (now defunct) and told me many stories on what crossed her desk.  The fiction she dealt with included knock-offs of existing books with different characters, and poor writing that was not edited for grammar and consistency.  One was down right plagiarism of the Harry Potter characters!

7)  Looking at your books on Amazon, I don’t see any science fiction. Is your story in SPRING INTO SCI-FI a departure for you?

I have two existing full scifi novels.  The Cat Who Fell To Earth, rewritten a couple of times over the years, is presently being marketed on Inkitt and has been there for a year.  It has gleaned 5 star reviews but their data analog has not collected enough data on it yet from their readers for them to come to a decision to publish it.  I sent it off to Angry Robot’s open call for submissions in Dec. and am waiting to hear if it has done anything.  The novel deals with the same race of leonine aliens that appear in the story in the 2018 SPRING INTO SCI-FI.  It is set in the contemporary United States in Sedona, AZ, and is a quirky first contact story involving a covert alien plot to make it happen while anti-contact and pro-contact factions argue it out in their Confederation of Planets council.

I also have a YA book I have not finished illustrating titled Bob’s Planet: A Journal. It is a heavily illustrated journal by protagonist Robert Carusoe, 17, on the first expedition to colonize the habitable planet Echo 48 discovered by the Kepler telescope long before he was born.  With him are his engineer father and teacher mother.  He is to be an exobiology intern while he finishes his schooling. 

His journal begins after the massive sleep ship Pilgrim 1 he is on meets disaster only two weeks after all were brought out of hibersleep as they enter the planetary system.  Caught in a dangerous meteor storm all are forced to evacuate the ship in escape pods.  Alone in a pod designed for four people, Robert survives his journey knowing not all made it.  He quickly finds himself forced to meet the challenges of life on a new world much like Earth’s Carboniferous age. The life forms are more hostile than expected, but he searches for his parents and other survivors while awaiting the arrival of Pilgrim 2, which is still a month away. 

A student of biology with a gift of drawing, Bob records his experiences and observations in his written journal in the tradition of Audubon and Darwin long before him. The journal itself covers twenty-one days with each section illustrated with plants, animals, maps and sketches of spacecraft in ink and pencil drawings as if done by Bob.  This is presently with an agent who handles books only by writer-illustrators and asked to see it.  Waiting to hear on this project, too, at this writing.

8)  Let’s finish up with a process question. Most successful writers get into a regular pattern. Some write in the morning before they go to work, others at night. What’s your writing schedule?

My writing schedule is crazy and I write any chance I get. Being single with no present commitments helps as my time is my own interrupted only by work around the house.  I write on weekends when not going out with friends or working in the yard etc.  I write when I do not get a substitute teaching assignment for the day.  It must share time with any illustration work I am doing be it for my work or on assignment from another author. In the summer I get more writing done. 

I am the naturalist for Lost River State Park and part of my job besides nature programs is to keep the historic Lee House open on certain days during the week.  While waiting for visitors I get a lot of writing done sitting on the front porch and back at my cabin at night where I stay on site for part of the week since I do not have a TV at the cabin. As much as I like my “Day Jobs,” I would like to do the writing and illustration full time.

Nick, thank you for your time. Best of luck with your new novels!

Nick Korolev can be contacted via his website.  He can also be found on Facebook or Linkedin.

His books are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble  or Books-a-Million

Both Nick Korolev and Tony Conaway have stories in the soon-to-be-released SPRING INTO SCI-FI anthology.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Never in Broad Daylight: An Interview with Frank Roger

Frank Roger and I both have stories in the just-released Fall Into Fantasy 2017 anthology, published by Cloaked Press. Earlier I interviewed another contributor, Molly Neely.

Frank has written several hundred short stories. He is also the author of the science fiction novel Bonobo Sapiens. He currently lives in Ghent, Belgium.

1)  Frank, I don’t know if you were a fan, but I’d like to express my condolences on the passing of Johnny Hallyday. I understand he was the biggest rock-and-roll star in France and Belgium for over fifty years.

Honestly, I wasn’t a fan. Hallyday was mostly popular in the French-speaking part of the country. But music (both live and recorded) has been a lifelong passion: I grew up with the heavy and progressive bands of the 70s and beyond (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Nazareth, Yes, King Crimson, UFO, Magnum, Wishbone Ash, Styx, 38 Special, Samson and too many others to mention), as well as some different stuff (such as singer-songwriter Heather Nova).

2)   Like most Belgians, I assume you’re multilingual. Do you write in different languages, or just in English?

My native language is Dutch. When I began writing, I naturally did so in Dutch. Later on I switched to English, as this offered more market possibilities. I still write in Dutch too, and when I find the time, I translate (or retell) some of my stories into French (my second language). On top of that, many of my stories have been published in translation in a growing number of languages (over 40 by now, ranging from the very small (Manx) to the very big (Chinese)).

3)  That's amazing! I don't think my work has been in more than 10 languages so far. 

In an email, you mentioned that you went to the latest World Science Fiction Convention, which was held in Helsinki. In fact, you’re the only person I know who attended that convention. I assume you’ve been to other WorldCons. How did the Helsinki Con compare with other Cons you’ve attended?

I visited worldcons (and other conventions) in many countries in Europe, as well as in the USA, Canada and India. The Helsinki worldcon stood out because it was a very international worldcon, even more so than the one in London in 2014. The American and Canadian conventions I attended were noticeably less international in scope. The convention in India (where I was one of the Guests of Honor by the way) was an academic affair, supposed to be international, but attracting mostly people from all over India.
4)  Your story in Fall Into Fantasy, “Variant Readings,” is about 3,000 to 3,500 words long, correct? How do you decide what is the best length for a story?

Each story has its own natural length. That may be 50, 500, 5,000 or 50,000 words. I never trim or expand stories to fit a certain length. They always happen to be exactly as long as they need to be. My stories are not plot-driven or character-driven, but idea-driven: some ideas take more space to develop than others.

5)  You’ve written flash fiction, short stories, and novels. Which do you prefer?

I don’t think of myself as a novelist. I prefer doing short stories of varying lengths. I tend to think that novel writing and story writing are two very different talents, and few writers are blessed with both. My favorite short story writers are Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard and Jorge Luis Borges. Writers like Dick and Ballard (and perhaps I should also mention Robert Silverberg here) also did novels of course, but I always thought they excel at shorter work. My story “Variant Readings” was of course inspired by Borges. It is one of many stories of mine about strange books or bookstores.
6)  Before they submit their work, many writers run it by either a trusted critique group or a cadre of beta readers.  Do you, and how did you get that group?  (It took me many years to find a critique group that I found truly helpful.)

When a story is finished, I prefer submitting it right away. I trust an editor’s decision more than the view of someone who may or may not like a story for a variety of reasons, but whose opinion won’t lead to a publication. Some stories get picked up quickly, others take years to find a home. I have written about five hundred stories by now, and I believe that eventually they will all see print somewhere.

7)  Let’s finish up with a process question: how do you write?  Do you do it in the same time and place every day?

I take lots of notes. That’s how each story starts out. I only begin writing when I have a title, a beginning and an end. Improvisation doesn’t work for me. I try to do some writing every day, and I prefer working in the evening. Perhaps good stories never come to fruition in broad daylight?

On that we're in agreement: good stories are created at night!

Frank, thanks for sitting for this interview. Maybe we’ll get to meet at a future World Science Fiction Convention.

You can follow Frank Roger on Facebook at or on his website

Friday, November 17, 2017

She's an AAA: Actress, Academician, and Author

Several years ago, I took a writing class with Jonathan Maberry, an excellent teacher and a multiple winner of the Bram Stoker award. One of the other students in that class was the delightful Lesley Grigg. We read our work aloud to the class, and Lesley said that she liked my reading voice so much that I should register as voice talent at the ad agency where she worked. I did, and got some paid work out of it.

We didn't stay in touch and I lost track of her when she switched jobs. But a few years later I met her again when she joined the Brandywine Valley Writers Group.

About Lesley Grigg: She has a degree in elementary education, and a background spanning the entertainment industry in and around Philadelphia. Lesley has been active in the classroom and on and off the stage, screen, and writing desk.

As an actress, she's performed in theater, film, and television before moving behind the scenes to work in casting, catering, talent representation, and more. Watching peers achieve their goals in the arts has inspired Lesley to write, produce, and direct an independent film and play. By following her passions, no matter how many there are, she hopes to inspire others to reach their goals as well.

Lesley published her first novel, Remember, in 2013. Her new novel is Aunty Says, Get aLife. Here's my interview with her:

Welcome, Lesley. Before we talk about your books, I want to ask about the book trailers you’ve done to promote your books. They’re nicely done, and look very professional. However, there’s a lot of controversy among authors as to whether or not book trailers are worth the effort. Your thoughts on that?

Thank you! Well, since I enjoyed making these trailers, they weren’t so much of an effort. I think video is just another way to entice an audience. I’m very visual, so even though these trailers are basically moving words with some sound to stir the imagination, it adds another element to book marketing, and they were fun and easy to make!

You now have two novels out. Is all your writing long form, or do you write short stories as well?

No short stories yet, but they may be on the horizon. I started with blogging, which is like an informative short story. I still blog about travel and writing on my website, and I freelance for other various clients. I’m also a full-time creative copywriter, so writing short sell copy to tell a product story is my day job.

In your bio, you mention that you enjoy travel. Has travel informed or enriched your writing?

Absolutely! Traveling has opened my mind to other cultures and experiences, both of which I write about in blogs and has inspired many of the scenes in my newest novel, Aunty Says, Get a Life.

For years, I’ve kept a file titled “Character Names,” which I use to name the characters in my stories. But I use that file just so each character has a distinctive name, so the reader doesn’t get them confused. You also pick interesting, offbeat names for your characters: Neviah, Pelia, Carys. Do these names have any hidden meaning?

Thanks! Yes! I love naming characters, and I’m a big believer in name meanings, so I search the baby naming sites and choose names that match a character’s personality. A little inside info, some names even give spoilers! For instance, Neviah means “Prophetess, seer into the future” in Hebrew, which goes along with the paranormal aspects of her story. In one of the chapters, she also mentions why her mother chooses Hebrew names. Pelia means “miracle of God” in Hebrew. Carys is Welsh for “to love” and “beloved friend,” which is both beautiful and speaks to her personality.

Tell us about you new book, Aunty Says, Get a Life.

Aunty Says is like a fictionalized quarter-life crisis memoir, in a way. It’s inspired by some tough love advice from my aunt, and a lot of my travel experiences. I changed the names to protect the innocent—and not so innocent.

Readers ride shotgun with Carys, who goes through a near death experience and has to find a way to reclaim her life. 

Your first novel, Remember, is written in the first person Point of View. How do you decide on what Point of View you use in your books?

It’s not so much of a conscious decision. It’s more of how the characters speak to me. I was in a lot of character heads while writing Remember, and they all had such a distinct voice, so first person was the easiest route to take.

What’s next? Do you have a children’s book on the horizon?

I do, and this project is actually what got me started writing books. This idea of a series of picture books about travel has stuck with me since before any novel was considered. It’s gone through agent and publisher offices and across a few illustrator desks, but hopefully I’ll have something to show the world early next year.

Let’s finish up with a process question. Are you a morning writer, an evening writer or a weekend writer?

Oh man, I’m probably not the one to ask about process, because I don’t have a regular one. I find it easier to write in the beginning and at the end of a project, when the ideas are flowing and the story is finally coming together. The middle is a struggle. I’m sure many writers can relate.

As a copywriter, I’m writing every weekday, 9-5, so most of my personal writing happens at night or on the weekend – I’m not a morning person at all. I rely a lot on the power of inspiration. Sometimes it comes in the form of a great movie I just watched, book I read, or song I heard – this gets the process moving along more smoothly. 

Lesley, thank you for your time.

You can follow Lesley Grigg on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter. She also has pages on Amazon and Goodreads.

Lesley Grigg will be signing copies of her books on Sunday 19 November, 2017, from 1 to 3 pm at the West Chester Book Outlet, 967 Paoli Pike (in the West Goshen Shopping Center), West Chester, PA. Phone: (610) 430-2184

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mr. January Knows Where the Bodies Are Buried

I met Todd Harra at a meeting of the Wilmington – Chadds Ford Writers Group. He is currently promoting his latest book, the mystery novel Grave Matters. Todd is a fourth-generation undertaker who enjoys writing in his spare time. His family has been in the undertaking business since the Civil War.

In 2008, Todd appeared in the Men of Mortuaries calendar as "Mr. January." He is a graduate of Elon University and the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service. He works for the family business in Wilmington, Delaware, McCrery & Harra Funeral Homes and Crematory.

Todd’s humorous non-fiction books are Over Our DeadBodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid and Mortuary Confidential: UndertakersSpill the Dirt, both co-authored with Ken McKenzie.

Welcome, Todd. You certainly have an interesting background. Before we focus on your latest novel, Grave Matters, I want to ask about your two collaborative books. How did you and your co-author, Ken McKenzie, come to work together? What was the co-writing process like?

We met in California while shooting Ken’s Men of Mortuaries Calendar. The calendar is one of the ways he funds his breast cancer foundation, KAMM Cares. Ken later reached out to me with an idea he had for a book, what would eventually become MC:USTD, as an additional vehicle to fund KAMM Cares. I loved the premise, and saw the idea had real potential so I told him I wasn’t interested in ghost writing it, but was interested in co-authoring it.

We complement each other as a writing team because together we have the skills necessary to bring a good book to market. Ken collects the stories and then hands them off to me, I write the books, and then Ken does the lion’s share of the marketing. Ken is a promotional machine. Me, I’d rather write.

Let’s talk about your mystery novel, Grave Matters. First off, congratulations! You’ve produced a book that’s both entertaining and informative. You made a choice that surprised me, though. I expected the action of the book to take place in your native Wilmington, Delaware. Instead, it takes place in and around Charleston, South Carolina. Why there?

I wanted a location that was sexy and sophisticated, something Murder City is neither. Additionally, Charleston is unique in a geographic sense. If you look at a map, it’s essentially a peninsula formed by a confluence of rivers that flow together to form the harbor (of the Fort Sumter fame). Without giving anything away, those rivers are an important part of the plot, as are some important historical events that happened in Charleston.

Your protagonist, Tripp Clipper, is a funeral director like yourself. Anytime the protagonist of a mystery is something other than a police officer or a private detective, you have to justify why the lead character gets involved in the mystery.

Clip, as his friends call him, was a medic in the Army. When he gets a case that supposedly died as the result of a car wreck, his medical background tells him the injuries don’t add up. He brings this information to the attention of the coroner’s office, but it’s the usual politics. The coroner doesn’t want to reopen a case that’s been cleared. Clip may have let things go, but when the dead girl’s brother shows up fresh off the Afghan battlefields, it becomes a brother-in-arms thing. Clip decides to ask a few questions. What could possibly be the harm in that?

Grave Matters is written in the first person Point Of View. In that POV, the reader only knows what Clip knows, and Clip appears on every page of the book. While first person is traditional for a mystery, did you consider a different POV?

The original incarnation of Grave Matters I wrote in third person. It was a very different book. Thankfully, I had an editor smart enough to tell me to get my head out of my ass, and helped me hone in on my strengths, one of which is writing in first person. For some reason it’s a lot more natural for me. Everything I write is first person. I found writing a mystery in first person was quite a balancing act. Make the protag too smart and the mystery is solved in chapter two. Make him/her too dumb and mystery remains, get the picture.

What’s next? Will we be seeing another Trip Clipper mystery?

Yes, hopefully soon if I can bring the cruise ship into dock. I have a few thousand words left on the first draft of Blackwater, but finishing a book is a lot like the fourth quarter in a football game: in theory it’s only 15 minutes, but the reality is it’s a lot longer. Blackwater finds Clip in the middle of a bioterror attack on Charleston where he’s pressed into service for DMORT. DMORT is a federal organization that responds to mass fatalities.

That sounds like a very different – but fascinating  – book! Let’s finish up with a process question. Most successful writers get into a regular pattern. Some write in the morning before they go to work, others at night. As a funeral director, you have a very irregular schedule – clients don’t die on a predictable schedule.  Sometimes you must have several days off in a row, while other days you probably don’t have time a write at all. How do you keep up with your writing?

Simply making it a habit. Even if I have a busy day, I try to sit down and produce for 10 or 15 minutes, just to stay in the groove of the story. It’s funny how some of those micro writing days are more productive than an entire day off!

Todd, thank you for your time.

You can follow Todd on Facebook at or on his website at

Todd Harra will be signing copies of his books on Sunday 19 November, 2017, from 1 to 3 pm at the West Chester Book Outlet, 967 Paoli Pike (in the West Goshen
Shopping Center), West Chester, PA. The bookstore’s phone is (610) 430-2184.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What Scared Me


It's Hallowe'en, so it's a good time to talk about what scared me when I was young.

When I was a child, nothing -- NOTHING -- frightened me as much as this episode of the old "Outer Limits" TV show. It's called "The Zanti Misfits," and it revolved around alien insects who came to Earth.

They were aggressive.  And their bite was deadly!

"The Outer Limits" was a black-and-white TV show with a limited budget. The Zanti creatures were just models, like the old toy "Cootie." The main difference is that the Zanti puppets were designed to be scary, sporting angry, humanoid heads.

The Zanti puppets were also built with wobbly rubber feet.  The budget for "Outer Limits" was so low that they could only afford a few seconds of stop-motion animation for a single Zanti. So the remainder of the Zanti were just puppets pulled along by string, or attached (as if biting) to actors.  Any movement would make the rubber feet wobble, giving the illusion that the Zanti were walking.

Today, it looks absurdly lame.  And yet, it worked in the 1960s. Of all the "Outer Limits" episodes, "The Zanti Misfits" frightened me the most.

SPOILER: At the end of the episode, the humans triumph and kill all the murderous Zanti.  Then, over the radio, the Zanti home planet reveals that the dead Zanti were all condemned criminals.  The Zanti were too kind-hearted to execute their own criminals.  But they knew that humans were murderous enough to kill all the criminal Zanti.

Yes, it's absurd.  Transport criminals across interstellar space, just to execute criminals?  The Zanti could just put the spacecraft in orbit around their own planet and let the criminals starve.  Or they could let the air out of the spacecraft and suffocate them.

But it sounded cool, back in the 1960s.  And scared the hell out of me.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

What I've Learned About Giving Public Readings, Part Five

I've often recommended that, when going to a public reading, you should bring a selection of stories to choose from.  Once you arrive, size up your audience.  Are they interested in one genre, but not another?  Is the topic of one of your stories not likely to interest them?  You need to pick the right piece for each audience!

(I learned that lesson years ago when I was scheduled on a Monday night during football season.  The audience was all women; all the men were off watching the game.  Unfortunately, I had nothing available to entertain them -- my work was very male-oriented back them.  I bombed.)

However, it's been pointed out to me that new authors don't have a wide variety of work to choose from.  Furthermore, most authors concentrate on just one or two genres.  If all you write is science fiction and fantasy, you've got a very specific fan base.  You probably won't be able to keep an audience of nonfiction or poetry fans entertained.

So, here are my suggestions for a successful public reading when you don't have that many readings to pick from.

1)  Find Out What the Audience Likes to Read

You don't have to wait until you arrive to find this out.  Ask the person who's organizing the event.  If the organizer says that his typical audience loves poetry, but you only write prose, just say "Thanks, but no thanks."  No one can entertain every audience.

When you arrive, LOOK at the crowd.  What if the audience is all young people, and you only write science fiction?  Yes, there are some younger science fiction fans.  But SF fans tend to be older.  (I'm talking about fans of SF books, not movies or video games.)  The people who organize SF conventions even have a name for it: "the graying of fandom."

Yes, younger SF fans do exist.  They're the ones most likely to dress oddly.  I've even seen them dressed like characters from their favorite books.  But if you've got an audience of, say, serious college students who want to hear serious literature, you're in trouble.

Another possible problem is if your work is adult...but the audience includes children.  If you can't censor yourself and change the curse words in your story, maybe you shouldn't present it.

And, once again, after you've arrived, ask the organizer, "what do these people like to read?"  Maybe they aren't the people the organizer expected when he or she spoke to you before the event. 

If you feel you have nothing to entertain them...well, as long as there are other readers, maybe you should back out.  Or at least lower your expectations.

2)  Make Your Selection SHORT

Keep to your allotted time.  If there are several readers, you are probably allotted either five or ten minutes.

Practice reading your piece, and know how long it takes to present.  If it's too long, cut it down.

At a recent reading, the only complaint I heard from the audience was that one reader went on too long.  Believe me, too short is much better than too long.

I notate my expected reading time of each piece right on my script, so I know how long it should take to deliver. 

As the saying goes, "Leave them wanting more."

3)  Don't Rush!

Another rookie mistake is to read too quickly.

Sometimes this happens when you're trying to fit a seven-minute piece into a five-minute slot.  Don't try it.  Cut the piece down to a leisurely five minutes.  Or, better yet, four-and-a-half minutes -- that way you have a cushion.  And time for the audience to laugh at the jokes (if any).

Other times, the reader speeds up because he or she is nervous.  Experience should help you get over your nervousness.  If it doesn't, my best suggestion is to time not only your piece, but each page.  Write that time on each page.  Then put a timepiece where it's clearly visible to you.  That will let you know that you should be done (for example) page 2 at the 3 minute-mark.  If you're not at 3 minutes when you finish page 2, you'll know you're going too fast.

(I don't know if anyone makes an "click track" app for readers, but that might be helpful.  A click track is an even, regular, metronome-like sound that is piped over a singer's headphones in a recording studio.  It's a way to keep a singer from speeding up.  But then you'd have to wear an earpiece while you read -- which might be too much of a distraction.)

4)  Finally, Pick a Piece You Can Deliver

Everybody stumbles over some words.  Maybe it's a multi-syllabic word.  Maybe it's a technical term.  (I was acting in a medical video recently, and my partner had to repeat her part ten times in order to correctly pronounce some medical terms!)  Or perhaps it's a foreign word that causes problems.  I was once in a play in which a character had to refer to a type of French white wine called Pouilly Fuisse.  He couldn't do it.  We finally changed it to Chianti.

So, if you have trouble with a word, change it.

Another obstacle to presenting a piece: I recently saw a writer who read a piece that was so emotionally affecting to her that she broke down during the reading.  She choked up, then coughed repeatedly.  The organizer brought her a glass of water.  She drank the water, but it didn't help.  Eventually, she was so overcome with emotion, she had to complete her reading while sitting down.

Don't do this.  If a piece has such emotional resonance for you that you can't deliver it without breaking up, don't read it.

Those are my suggestions.  Happy reading!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Put It Out There...Then Shut Up!

My friend and colleague Gary Zenker recently wrote an article for writers on "How to Get the Most Out of a Critique."

It's a good article with some important ideas. However, I have a few points I want to add:

1)  Present Your Work...Then Shut Up!

Time and again I've seen new writers try and defend their work from every criticism. Some people find it almost impossible to just sit there and take criticism.

But that's what a critique is supposed to be: the chance for OTHERS to say what they think of your work. If you keep defending your choices, people will give eventually give up giving you honest critiques.

If someone ASKS you a question, answer it. Or, as Gary suggests, redirect their question to others in the critique session. (As in, "What did you mean here?" "Well, can anyone else answer that question?") Otherwise, shut up.

2) When You Have to Preface Your Work, Keep It Short

Sometimes you are presenting the middle of a work for a critique. In that case, you may have to give some backstory. Preferably, it should be written down, and no more than a few paragraphs long. Keep it as simple as possible.

An example is this: "This is the 15th chapter of my novel. The protagonist, Waldo Pickens, is a Junior in High School. He's being raised by a divorced mother, who has grounded him. In the previous chapter, he and his mother argued about him going out to a party. He has now sneaked out and gone to the party. We pick up the story after he's gotten drunk for the first time and is trying to walk home."

Keep it short, and relevant to the pages being critiqued. We don't need to know about his dad, the name of his dog, where he went to summer camp, or how he's doing in school. Maybe those things are important in subsequent chapters, but not in the part being critiqued.

3)  Save Your Own Questions for the End. (This is a point on which Gary and I may disagree.)

When you ask the critique members to focus on something up front, you're dragging out the process. Plus, it's important to get their honest impression of the entire piece, rather than focusing on one aspect.

If you want to ask them, "I wrote this in the First Person. Do you think it would be better in Third Person?" -- that's better asked after everyone has had their say.

One thing I like to ask is, "What do you think will happen next?" Usually, they will give you the most obvious answer. Then I'll go ahead and write the opposite. I want to surprise my readers as much as possible.

4)  Finally, Ignore the Outlier Opinions.

Act like an athlete having their performance judged, and ignore the lowest score and the highest score. Go with the majority opinion.

The guy who hates your work is probably wrong. There's a former member of one of my critique groups who often said, "I hate your characters so much I wish a meteor would fall out the sky and crush them." Yeah, that's not useful. Ignore him.

The one who loves it to death is probably wrong, too. I've actually had someone say, "This is as good as anything Mark Twain wrote." Hey, I'm good, but I'm not Mark Twain good.

The exception: if that outlier opinion is from a publisher or an agent. If someone says, "I'll publish this and pay you money if you cut out this character"...well, you might want to follow their suggestion. Or if someone says, "I'll take you on as a client if you rewrite this in the Third Person." If there's money (or the potential of money) involved, you might want to take an outlier opinion. But that rarely happens.

Happy critiquing!