What Did You Write That For?

“Any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others.”


I have had a long and preponderantly happy life, and a good deal of that happiness has come from my writing, and the response of both friends and strangers to it.  I’m a guy who dropped out of school after 11th grade, joined the military and had a big adventure while learning what they could teach me.  Returning to civilian life, I continued to write, my four years in the navy providing a rich mine of characters, locations, and situations as grist for my mill.  As an author, I am technically, I suppose, self-taught, as I couldn’t afford college or writing retreats.  I did have the wherewithal to discover, seek out, and filter what spoke to my developing style into a concise library from among the thousands of how-to-write-books books that are available, so in that sense, you could say that I’ve been taught by the best, from Evan Marshall to Stephen King.  In spite of all this, when I began to finish books and seek publication, America’s acquisition editors proved to be the one group that I couldn’t crack, and I managed to collect rejection slips from more publishers than most people know exist.

Apparently, reading instructional manuals written by great authors isn’t quite the same as sitting in their classrooms, reacting to their lessons and being able to ask pertinent questions, yet in spite of this, with the exception of those editors, virtually everyone I have been able to get my work in front of professes to like it a great deal.  It began with friends, family, and coworkers, when I would hand them a manuscript and say, “Tell me what you think.”  I found an extended audience in writing.com, when I joined back around 2011.  I began the construction of Beyond the Rails, shared every story there, and scores of strangers loved it.  When I discovered CreateSpace in 2013, I published the first six stories as a book.  Reviewers and critics ate it up, and that was all the encouragement I needed.  I have since stepped away from writing.com, and I’ll concede that that could be a mistake, but I felt like I needed a professional-looking “me-only” web page to represent me to the world, so here I am with four books published and more on the way, and with the kind assistance of WordPress, a most professional-looking page to represent me to the world.

So, given my background, what is the secret of my success?

“Success?” you ask.  “But you never inked that big contract with a publisher.  Where is this success you speak of?”

Well, success has as many different meanings as there are people seeking it, and my success has been vindication, validation of the fact that I really can tell a good story that can hold a reader’s interest from the first hook to the final victory.  I get three or four Emails a day about my work; Stephen King gets three or four thousand, but I’m happy.  Like most writers, I’m essentially a private person, and I’m not sure I’d do well if thousands of people were clamoring for interviews, TV appearances, convention panels and the like.  Monetarily, sure, but there are other measures of success besides money, and to me, having that little intimate group of fans, and a few book sales each month lights my heart with joy.  In essence, I had a long, productive career, I have a better-than-adequate retirement package, and my days are devoted to my loving family; I’m not sure I’d enjoy being yanked out of here to put on a Halloween costume and strut around some hot, crowded convention over a long weekend.  But being appreciated as a writer?  There are few rewards that approach that feeling.

So how did a barely-educated high school dropout reach this point?  I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I think the answer has to be by writing what I love.  I was a child in the 1950s, and we weren’t well-off.  One of the things I vividly remember was a near-weekly trip downtown to hit the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.  As a young child, I always picked over the toy bin to see what treasure some anonymous little kid had parted with, but as I got a little older, I developed a love of reading, and if there’s one thing that thrift stores have in burgeoning abundance, it’s books.  Back in the 50s, I was poring over shelves and bins of books written in the 30s and 40s, and even then, I loved action and adventure.  But books in those days, even books aimed at adults, could be read by children, because they weren’t dripping with gore and torture scenes, the women didn’t fall into someone’s bed every time they tripped, the heroes were heroic, and the villains didn’t have to have some redeeming quality.  I began to miss those books as I grew to adulthood and they fell out of favor with whoever decides what books make it to our bookstores, and since no one else was going to write them, I decided I would write them myself.  My surprise was complete when my modest modern audience embraced them like they had never seen them before!

I think there’s a moral here somewhere, something that writers can take away and use, and I think it might be to write what you love.  Not what you know, what you love.  If you write the stories you love, and let that love of your chosen type and genre show through on the page, you will have won 90% of the battle…  At least, that’s my experience.

In Other News…

I have already mentioned the fine work of Bryce Raffle and David Lee Summers in the short life of this site.  Today I have the pleasure of directing you to the place where you can find both of these upright gentlemen together and interacting.  Allow me to present the latest edition of Dead Steam, Bryce’s blog, where he interviews David about his career as an author.  Very much worth getting to know these two, and as an added bonus, you might find a new read or two among his eleven novels, eighty-five short stories, and fifty-five poems.

Well, that’s it for me.  Join me again Friday for a Blimprider Times where I’ll feature a site that I’ve found entertaining, and bring you up to date on what’s been happening around the intergalactic airship of your mind.  See you then!

Blimprider Times, No. 10

Featured Site of the Week

Naomi Rawle

This week, I’m spotlighting an old friend, Naomi Rawle, or more precisely, her web page.  Naomi, who goes by Noa (which I think might be tied to her initials), is a writer who has learned to make the most of the slivers of time available to her.  You see, she teaches English as a second language in Greece, and I can’t imagine how time-consuming that must be!  Still, she finds time to write short stories that are routinely accepted by anthologies, and she blogs on occasion.  “Occasion” meaning that she’ll go a month or more between posts, then get out two or three right on top of each other.  She always makes them count, though, blogging about her projects and progress, promoting her anthologies, and even having the occasional guest, such as last month’s guest post by David Wiley, author of Monster Huntress.

I’ve known Noa for several years, having first met her in the now-defunct Scribblers’ Den writing group of the old Steampunk Empire.  She is a knowledgeable author and a deep conversationalist, and I highly recommend that you take a few moments to pay her a visit.  You’ll find this multi-talented lady holding court on her blog, Through the Eyes of a Stranger.

View from the Blimp

The aforementioned Scribblers’ Den was hands-down the greatest writing group I’ve even been associated with.  It was everything I wanted a group to be, in some part because I created it.  It lasted for two years and had 180+ members who were constantly chattering about Things Book, making our message board look more like a chatroom forum.  Then one morning, a steaming pile of rancid horse shit (sorry, I’d spin that some other way if I could) woke up in a foul mood and deleted the whole site!  Over 20,000 members lost stories, diagrams, blogs, blueprints, videos, sheet music, photographs, game prototypes, thousands of pieces of personal material, tens of thousands, gone on one asshole’s whim.

My good friend William Jackson, with the support of Lee Jahn, Steven Moore, and a few others, has attempted to recreate it on a new social media site.  Me, I don’t think a group like that comes along more than once in a lifetime, but I’m over there as an ordinary member, hoping against hope.  The fact is that only twenty-seven of us have found our way back, and some of them aren’t original members.  Still, they’re a courteous and enthusiastic lot, so perhaps…

So, why all this babble about Scribbler’s Den?  Aside from the fact that I’m still angry about our shabby treatment from a year ago, there is an upcoming project I want to get you all thinking about.  You see, each fall to celebrate the anniversary of our founding, members of Scribblers’ Den have produced an anthology with a theme.  This year’s theme is Port Reprieve.

Port Reprieve is an alternate reality we created which sees the Civil War end in 1864 by European intervention.  Mobile AL was under siege at the time, and has been battered to rubble by the Union mortar boats.  A new settlement called Port Reprieve has been established on the west side of the bay.  It is now 20 years on, Port Reprieve rivals Charleston and New Orleans for the title of “Queen of the South,” and Yankees are very much persona non grata.  The port is a melting pot of Europeans, Africans, and Asians, is very steampunk in flavor, and is populated by everything from conniving dowagers to mad scientists, dangerous street urchins to exotic prostitutes and spies.  The swamps and forests behind the town are believed to be inhabited by cryptozoological creatures from human/animal hybrids to loup-garou.  Are they really, or do people’s imaginations get the better of them on dark, lonely nights?  We writers have found the mysterious and multi-layered city a fabulous locale to let imagination off the leash to hunt, and we’re gambling that readers will share in the mystique.  We’ll all find out together this fall, I suppose…

In support of the original project, I modified this map and posted it on the group’s page.  I found no copyright info attached to it, though I’m sure belongs to someone:


My next task, before I begin the second Darklighters story, is to create a new map, owned by me, that rivals this one, and infringes no copyright so that it can be used in the new anthology.  No telling how long I’ll be on this one, but there is one rule known and respected by all serious indie authors:  If you want to get support, you have to give support!  This is just part of the dues…

Most of you probably don’t know that I have another blog called Jack’s Hideout where I blog about non-writing activities.  It doesn’t see much action anymore, but last night I saw the most scathingly brilliant movie, and felt compelled to tell the world…  And, no, it isn’t an Avengers movie!  Come check it out when you’re ready for a truly imaginative treat.

In Other News…



Speaking of William Jackson, he has re-released From an Irradiated Crypt, the third book of the Rail Legacy series, with a new cover by Bryce Raffle Designs.  William’s original cover is on the left, Bryce’s update on the right.  I’ll leave them to speak for themselves…



And we’re done here!  Join me next Monday when I’ll try to start the workweek off right with a discussion of what your motivation should be to write compelling fiction.  See you then!

The Needs of the Many

“Writing is one of the few professions left where you take all the responsibility for what you do.  It’s really dangerous and ultimately destroys you as a writer if you start thinking about responses to your work or what your audience needs.”


Liberating words from a famous author, you may think, and yet your audience has needs if you are a fiction author, and if you won’t provide them, they will find an author who will.  Bold words from a nobody, perhaps, but let’s look at what goes on during the creation and consumption of fiction.

The initiating event in any work of fiction is its creation.  You, the author, sit at a keyboard and string words of the English language together to create a story.  “Story” is a catch-all term that we can take to mean the whole package.  You create a premise, a plot, characters, actions, you give them setting, context, dialogue, and if you’re very good, and very lucky, all of these disparate parts come together in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, and we call it a story.  But even now, it isn’t complete.  To reach completion, it needs readers, readers who like it, who tell their friends that they should read it because it’s a good use of their time, and they’ll gain something intangible from it.  And readers have needs.

Needs you have to meet.  When you create this world, no one but you knows the first thing about it, and it is your challenge to let potential readers into it.  Readers need to know how it works, they need to know who inhabits it, they need to know what these people want, and what they’re willing to do to get it.  Needs.  If your story is going to be remembered as being really exceptional, they also need you to hold some vital information back, to keep it from them, to let them speculate.  On the other hand, some stories do best when the readers are given more information than the characters have, thus building tension and dread for the disaster that those characters can’t see coming.  “Don’t open that door!” their minds scream at the character.  “Don’t look in that crate!”  But of course, they do, and the moment that they do, and the reactions that they have, are completely under your control; did you meet the reader’s need?

Back during my stay with writing.com, the Mystery Newsletter highlighted the incomplete Stingaree as an Editor’s Pick.  I never would have known it, had it not been reviewed by a reader who told me she found it there.  Then a week later a different editor of that same newsletter featured Brass & Coal as an Editor’s Pick.  As more experienced mystery readers became aware of these steampunk romps, they gave me some indication that my Mystery chops are legit, but that’s beside the point.  See, I never thought of myself as a mystery writer, but apparently some experienced mystery readers and/or writers do.  Has this colored the way I approach my stories?  You bet your sweet acidophilis it has!  Now I’m thinking in terms of foreshadowing, red herrings, MacGuffins, and all the other tools of the mystery writer that I’ve never had to pay any attention to before.  But now, not only is it necessary, but I firmly believe it will improve my overall Craft.

It is my contention that not only do you have to accommodate the needs of your readers, if you hope to have any, but that the delicate balancing act of too much or too little meeting of those needs begins to vie with richly-drawn characters as the most important aspect of fiction.  Some might want to call this “pacing,” and I can see where it’s related, but this is really more like “presentation.”  Here is this world I’ve created.  I want you to come in and enjoy it, so I’ve decided to show you this, and withhold that, and with that information, you have to parse out what’s going on, who’s interested, and why, and alternately shiver in fear, and quiver with anticipation as you make your way through it.

That is your challenge as a writer, and compared to that, all the others fade to insignificance.  It’s a dangerous tightrope to walk, and a balance that must be achieved from the first page and held to the last…  And just when you thought you had it all figured out, here’s this whole new skill to learn… and I should digress here to point out that I’m leaning hard on seventy, and have been writing for sixty years!  Getting this right is going to require the ability to read your own story like you’ve never seen it before, to ask, “would I be surprised, gratified, terrified, or whatever else might be required at this point, if I was seeing this for the first time?”  You’ll have to arrive at an accurate answer, and incorporate your solution on the page in a way that will satisfy every reader’s needs.  Sort of brings a whole new meaning to the concept of proofreading, doesn’t it?

So this is my theory, and it’s a fairly new one for this old writer.  I call it the Presentation of a story, and it can best be described as “How much do you tell, and when do you tell it?”  What do you think, is it legit?  Is it something that needs to be addressed by conscientious authors, or am I just starstruck after having been unexpectedly defined as a mystery writer?

Thoughts?  Opinions?

View from the Blimp

It gives me great pleasure to announce that A Visit of State, the first story in The Darklighters collection, is finally complete (the first draft, at least) and ready to read by clicking on the appropriate tab above.  The Darklighters is planned as a series of five independent novellas (20,000 words ±) connected together by an overarching story arc.

A Visit of State will be the only one that can be read here for free, but if you like the story and would like the opportunity to read the rest of the book as it is being written, then contact me and tell me that you would like to join my beta-reading group.  As a beta-reader, you will receive each scene as it is completed, and possibly other materials as seem appropriate, and what I will ask in return is that you notify me of any errors that you spot, from typos to plot holes.  These are things that I most decidedly don’t want to appear in my finished product, and the more eyes on the project, the better.  I envision six to ten, but I can accommodate a few more than that.  Names and web addresses of those who have them will appear in the acknowledgement section of the finished book.

Looking forward to working with some of you!

In Other News…

When an unsuspecting reader receives The Call and undertakes the journey that is writing, he or she is often an almost literal babe in the woods.  There are myriad lessons to learn, from plot format to character creation, building worlds to building networks, and for the most part, all these readers know is that they like a certain kind of book, and their approach is to sit down and write one similar to it.  But much like magic in the world of Harry Potter, the finished book you have just read is the tip of the literary iceberg, and gives no hint of the vast world that supports it.

It can be an agonizing journey that takes decades to master.  But a relatively new friend of mine, Liverpudlian author Richie Billing, has gathered 150 pages of advice, tips, tricks, and hacks for aspiring authors, and is offering it for free on his website, richiebilling.com.  If you are about to embark on our Journey, or have recently begun, and already found yourself in a minefield of confusion, click the link and download the guide; an afternoon’s reading will contribute mightily to your navigation skills.