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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lessons from successful authors on Striking Terror panel at Book Fair

I had a pleasure of introducing three successful apocalyptic horror authors at the Miami International Book Fair’s “Striking Terror” panel. Hugh Howey, Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes all had some great advice that I’d like to share. First, some background on the authors.

Howey started as a self-published author and then Wool caught fire and started selling thousands of copies. Now Random House is releasing the novel in the U.K. and Ridley Scott bought the movie rights. He also wrote the Molly Fyde Saga.

Due and Barnes are a husband and wife team, having co-authored Devil’s Wake. Individually, Due won an American Book Award for Essence. Her other novels include Blood Colony, The Living Blood and The Good House. Barnes has publishes 28 novels and has been nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards. He also wrote for Outliers, Twilight Zone and Baywatch. And don’t mess with him, because he’s an accomplished martial artist.

Here are some pearls of wisdom from these authors.

Howey – When I asked him what made sales of Wool really take off, he said it was word of mouth from readers. The novel he ignored in terms of marketing is what did really well. He said the best marketing is the keep writing and releasing stories.

On writing for young adults, keep in mind that they are more mature than you think. Don’t talk down to them. They want to read about mature topics, and aren’t afraid of gore. He made an alternative version of Wool without the handful of four-letter words so young adults can read it.

On the popularity of apocalyptic novels, he said people are afraid of dying alone so they want to see the whole world go with them.

He writes a rough outline of his novels before he starts, and that often includes the final scene so he knows where he is going.

He’s producing a show for BBC now.

Due – She likes to write novels that come from her deepest desires. Her mother showed her creature features and that got her interested in the genre.

She doesn’t like weak characters who fall and get eaten.

On the popularity of apocalyptic novels, kids today are sheltered to the real world, although they are savvy to what’s going on because of the Internet. So when they are forced to confront the world and leave that shelter, it will feel like a zombie attack.

On collaborating with her husband, she admits that they’ve had arguments about their books, but they agreed early on to separate their writing from their married life.

She’s working on a screenplay for My Soul to Keep

Barnes – He’s got four books coming out in the span of 16 months. The next is Domino Falls (sequel to Devil’s Wake) in February. These novels are his first venture into straight horror, where the dominant emotion is a sense of unease.  

In the classic movie Psycho, there’s the murder in the shower and then nothing really happens the rest of the movie. But the murder was so graphic that the viewer doesn’t want to see it again, and that creates the tension. A similar technique can create tension in horror novels.

On the difference between adults and young adults, an adult is someone who takes responsibility for their actions and no longer relies or blames others for them.

In Devil’s Wake, the group of youngsters have banded together to survive a world full of zombies. That forces them to take responsibility and be honest with each other about their issues.

“You can’t afford not to be honest with each other when one wrong step and you can get bitten by a zombie,” Barnes said.

Good writing comes in a state of unconscious competence. Like a martial artist, you perform the technique without thinking about it. When writing, this closes the distance between you and the page. Writer’s block is the confusion between the writing self and the editing self. Separate your writing – not worrying about grammar and spelling in the first draft – from your editing.

If you practice anything for 10,000 hours, you can be an expert.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Marlins thumb their nose at Miami and embarrass baseball

Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria  hoodwinked Miami-Dade County politicians into financing his stadium and then he faked out baseball fans with the mirage of fielding a legitimate major league team.

The Marlins’ fire sale trade to Toronto essentially rids of the team of all the players making more than chicken scratch (by pro athlete standards). After being thrifty on salaries for years, Loria boosted payroll to $100 million this spring when the Marlins opened their new stadium. The team was a bust. Attendance was the lowest for any new MLB stadium of the past two decades. 

So Loria has reverted to his cheapskate ways. This trade would leave the team with a 2013 payroll of about $19 million. Most of that is owed to pitcher Ricky Nolasco in the final year of his contract, so you can bet the man with the most wins in Marlins history is next on the trade block.

Loria must have figured that if you’re going to be in last place, you might as well finish last with a resounding thud. And be terrible while spending the bare minimum to field a team. Anybody willing to play for coupons?

It’s not like Loria needs fans in the stands. Thanks to revenue sharing across MLB teams, the Marlins have a set stream of dollars flowing in. The stadium can be a ghost town and he still makes millions as long as he doesn’t overspend.

But what about putting out a competitive product for the taxpayers who funded your stadium? What about drawing thousands of fans to Little Havana and revitalizing the neighborhood with all the reinvestment that would follow?

Empty promises. I can’t think of a team that’s done less to deserve the support of its community.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Make your bookworm squirm with chilling Halloween reads

Stuffed werewolves and plastic skeletons are mildly frightful, but real terror comes when the imagination is stimulated, especially by a haunting story. Sometimes a creepy book can conjure up the most fear on Halloween.

While it isn’t hard to find classics like Pet Sematary, there is a new breed of novel awaiting readers that enjoy a good scare. From zombies on the beach to a skin-melting lagoon, here are some recent novels that have terrified readers and critics – in a good way. All of them can be found on Amazon.com.

Halloween Jack and the Devil’s Gate by M. Todd Gallowglas (Bard’s Cloak of Tales) – It was Jack o’ the Lantern’s job to chase demons away from earth, but his powers failed and the minions of hell threaten to overrun the world. They spend Victorian-esque robots called steam soldiers storming across the globe. Jack’s three decedents must out-wit the ultimate evil. 

“Halloween Jack is a perfect blend of Harry Potter and Harry Dresdon, only with no magic and just the right dash of attitude.” – Fantasy Flight Games.

Mute” by Brian Bandell (Silver Leaf Books) – Things have gone terribly wrong in the once scenic Indian River Lagoon in Central Florida. The water is turning acidic and smells like rotten eggs. Seemingly harmless animals like manatees and dolphins are dragging people into the toxic depths. Headless bodies are popping out of the water, and the only witness is an eight-year old orphaned girl who saw her parents killed. Mariella has gone mute and it’s detective Monique “Moni” Williams’ job to protect the girl while at the same time figure out what’s behind the scourge from the lagoon. 

“Bandell, who grew up in Indialantic, shows Brevard’s beauty in scenes set in the Indian River Lagoon that are as breathtaking as they are scary.” – South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Dying Days” by Armand Rosamilia (Rymfire Books) – Many people like the beach because they see people showing off sexy skin. But for zombies, those skimpy bathing suits make it like a buffet. The undead hit the beach in with an appetite as they take the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, Fla., and try making it the most undead city. 

The Tour Bus of Doom – Spam the Cat and the ZombieApocalyps-o” by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough with K.B. Dundee (Gypsy Shadow Publishing) – The author of over 23 solo novels and 16 collaborations, Scarborough returns with a tour bus that rolls into a coastal town blaring loud drums and a zombie horde. Fortunately, the town has a brave defender: Spam the Cat. In this comedic horror, our hero has help from Rocky the vampcat. After the zombies sack the cats’ beloved fish n’ chips restaurant, the battle lines are drawn. 

“The voodoo zombie dust stuff was alarming, some of it was really breath-holding scary, especially the basic idea that zombie labor is even cheaper than slave labor.” – Kerry Greenwood, author of the best-selling Australian series Phryne Fisher

"Diaphanous" by Roy C. Booth and R. Thomas Riley (MinnKota Publications) – Arachnophobia is one of the core fears. Spiders creep most people out even though most aren’t harmful. Yet, these eight-legged baddies give the people of earth a very rational reason to fear them. Ted and Loretta are looking for their lost family member Mitch. The police think he abandoned his family. Not exactly. He’s been claimed by a family of little creatures bent on colonization. 

"A tale full of creeping dread and suspense, Diaphanous is a cool retro throwback to 50's and 60's creature horror.” – John Grover, author of “A Beckoning of Shadows.”

Devil Eyes” by Prudence Foster (Wing ePress) – A remote key off Florida’s Gulf Coast sounds like an ideal vacation spot, but not when you check into a cursed hotel. The renovation of the recently reopened Tarpon Inn didn’t remove its ancient curse, a fact that its unfortunate guests are soon to discover. Florida crackers and the Seminole tribe struggle to survive the murderous visions foreseen by the child who is burdened by this dark magic. And if that isn’t bad enough, here comes a hurricane. 

Invitation to a Murder” by Esther Luttrell (L & L Dreamspell) – Dena Brooke hoped to enjoy some relaxation at her beach cottage in Fort Myers, Fla. but the murder of her friend’s young son drew her back to Kansas. It is anything but a quaint prairie scene in Topeka as drive-by shootings, stalking and dark family secrets turn this into a pulse-pounding thriller. 

 The Witness WoreFur” by Nancy Clark Townsend (Blue Dragon Press) – It starts with a wounded dog in Wendy Malcolm’s yard. When the window seeks help for the animal as it suffers from stab wounds, she’s dragged into the mystery of two missing coeds and psychopathic killers. If they would do that to a cute dog, what would they do to a person?

If you have any other scary suggestions, please let me know...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why I needed Tori Amos’ music to write my novel

For anyone who took the time to read the acknowledgements page of my novel Mute before the story starts, you might wonder why I thanked musician Tori Amos. No, Tori wasn’t my editor. She was more like my muse.

I do most of my writing with a nice jolt of caffeine and music playing. The music sets the mood and helps the words pour out of me. Sometimes I link certain artists with characters in my stories. For Mute, most of the book was written listening to Tori’s golden pipes and her fingers dancing across the ivory. Check out the YouTube links to the songs so you can listen along.

Take the Prologue and Chapter 1. They were written to Tori’s “Little Amsterdam.”  Not only does it have a seedy Southern mood as she moans, “Little Amsterdam in a southern town,” the lyrics have a nice connection to the story. “Girl you’ve got to know these days, which side you’re on.” Moni must decide. Is she on the girl’s side or will she serve her badge first?

Then in Chapter 4, when officer Moni brings Mariella to her house for the first time, I listened to “Girl.” It’s about a woman finding independence and getting beyond the monotony of her life. “Everybody else’s girl. Maybe one day she’ll be her own.” This is Moni’s chance to step up and show she can do something big.

Many of the chapters where Mariella was in school having troubling fitting in and getting tormented by the boys were inspired by “PreciousThings.” The song starts with boys teasing her as ugly, but then Tori roars into, “I wanna smash the faces of those beautiful boys.” Fans will recognize that the song has sexual undertones that my story doesn’t, but I pick out the parts that fit.

The scenes with Moni in police task force meetings getting grilled by Sneed over her failings and trying to prove she belongs at the table with them were inspired by “Code Red.” The song opens with the jaw dropper, “Some say that I will and some say I won't. Victory is an elusive whore.”  Any song about a six pack of Coke and a bottle of Jack is cool with me. As Tori says, “Slip and slide my way through this charade.” Kind of what like Moni’s doing, not walking on solid ground. 

When Moni is threatened by her abusive father or her intimidating boyfriend, I played “Silent All These Years” to capture the mood. It’s about enduring a bad relationship, being powerless to do much about it, but still being defiant. “I got the anti-Christ in the kitchen yellin’ at me again. Yeah I can hear that.” No matter what, she doesn’t give up loving herself. “But what if I’m a mermaid in these jeans of his with her name still on it.”

What about Chapter 24, the one that was turned into an audio slide show? That was written to “Girl Disappearing.” This is the first time someone seriously confronts Moni with the accusation that Mariella isn’t a normal girl. Holding the girl in her arms, Moni denies it, but she’s afraid her accuser is right. Tori sums up the feeling: “With girl disappearing. What on earth's occurring? 'Cause she's right in front of me.” Then she drops a little hint of what’s to come: “So I'm running to a constellation, where they can still see you.”

In the chapter where the authorities come to take Mariella from Moni’s home, I went with an emotional, delicate song. Why not an angry song? Of course, Moni is angry about the situation. But in order to channel that anger, I have to understand what she’s afraid of. Tori’s “Mother” is about a girl forced to leave her family, “Mother the car is here. Somebody leave the light on. Green limousine for the redhead dancing, dancing girl. And when I dance for him somebody leave the light on, just in case I like the dancing, I can remember where I come from.” By feeling the desperation of a parent trying to prevent a child from being taken away, that triggered the desperate rage needed for this chapter.

There’s a chapter with Mariella running through the woods followed by her teacher. It was inspired by “Black Dove (January Girl).” The mood and the lyrics just fit. “She had a January world. So many storms not right somehow. How a lion becomes a mouse. By the woods.” And then another hint as Tori rips into the chorus: “You don’t need a spaceship. They don’t know you’ve already lived on the other side of the galaxy.”

I don’t want to describe much of what happens in the latter part of the book, because that would spoil all the fun, but I will say this. There are many creepy parts and otherworldly scenes. Many of these passages were written to songs from Tori’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin. One standout is “Give – “So you heard I crossed over the line. Do I have regrets? Well, not yet.” My soundtrack for these chapters also included “Strong Black Vine” and “Flavor. The latter song really hits it by opening with this: “Battle of the minds. Cries Below. Cries Above. You must pick a side. Will you choose fear? Will you choose love?”

Now Mute wasn’t written completely with one artist. I also listened to Coldplay’s “Spies” and The Raveonettes' "Aly, Walk With Me” for many of the creepy chapters. I needed something to make my spine tingle as I imagined fearsome things.

I used a similar technique for my upcoming novel Famous After Death, except no single artist dominated. The theme was gritty rock. The band for the first chapter: Velvet Revolver. Their music makes me want to do something way crazy.