Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Author David McCaleb on the Craft of Writing

This week's guest blog is from ITW Debut Author David McCaleb. David writes the national bestselling RedOps series, which began with Recall and continued with Reload.
David McCaleb is a thriller author, humorist, entrepreneur, business owner, veteran, USAFA grad, proud husband, and father. His experiences include a stint in bullet manufacturing, patenting an environmentally safe oil-changing system for cars, Air Force officer, and insurance agent. He started, built, and sold businesses. Though he enjoys drawing, painting, and the work of hands, his chosen tool is the pen. 

Enrich Your Writing with Sound
To be an effective writer, one must be a student of their craft.  And sometimes lessons come unexpectedly.  Recently I enjoyed a paint night in our hometown. These are entertaining events hosted by an artist that leads attendees through creating a basic painting.  I had already started one of a lonely, round hay bale laying in a mown field at sunset.  I brought my reference photo, so I knew exactly what I wanted to put on canvas. 
However, no matter how carefully I blended colors and applied them, the outcome resembled a pre-school finger painting.  Turns out there are methods to the art.  Layering pigments like sedimentary rock.  Applying a base, then lowlights, highlights, and timing of the application.  How to properly mix colors, dip the brush, and stroke them upon the surface.
Writing is no different.  You may have your scene’s movie reel spinning in your head, or be familiar with the emotions your character is experiencing, but if you don’t apply them correctly to the page, the result will be muddy and boring.  Or as in the case of my hay bale, even juvenile. 
Sound is an under-utilized aspect of our writing craft.  I think of it as a special kind of brush stroke.  Vision tends to be our most powerful sense and therefore is provided the most space upon the page.  But highlights and lowlights render dimension and bring depth to our scenes. 
In order to write about sound, you need to study it.  Simply put, practice listening.  So often, we skate across life like a frozen winter pond.  Instead, we need to cannonball into it like a cool summer lake.  To do so, one must stop and observe.  One must listen.  On the train on the way to work.  During your morning routine.  A veteran author once told me that writers perceive the world differently.  I say not differently, but truly.  Concentrate on what comes to your ears. 
This morning before I wrote this article, I sat on our porch and closed my eyes.  I heard the electric buzz of insects hitting the screen, the rush of air through leaves, the scrape of our dog’s claws as she settled next to my chair, the chirp, warble, and wail of countless mocking birds, cardinals, and sparrows, the splash of water over rocks, the rolling grind of a distant airliner, the droning whirr of a humming bird just outside our screen, and an occasional hum of distant tires on pavement.  And there are always sounds our brains take for granted.  It takes practice to notice them, but these are the nuggets that can anchor a reader in your story.  This morning, it was the liquid burble as I blew across the surface of my coffee.  Why hadn’t I ever noticed that before?
Now, if I did my job right, you have in mind a generic image of my porch and back yard, but the majority of my description was sound.  Think how vivid an image it could be if other sensory layers had already been applied.
And like any other art, application is key.  Just because you hear something doesn’t mean you throw it haphazardly onto your page and Presto!  Instant depth.  Author David Poyer has repeatedly told me, “The first word that comes to mind is never the right word.”  Good writing only looks easy to the reader.  But we know it is difficult.  Even laborious.  Don’t waste your reader’s attention.  Anything you place on the page should have meaning.  It should flesh out characters, propel the plot, and enrichen the experience. 
Put another way, don’t waste words
“The hum of tires on pavement.”  Really?  Did you let me get away with that?  Yawn.  How cliché.  Is your character feeling oppressed?  Then try, “The grind of tires…”  Maybe your protagonist is on the run through a forest from a wet team.  She pauses in a ditch next to a lonely country road and hears the approaching growl of tires.  Just by inserting a descriptive sound, we’ve reinforced the image of a predator and hinted that she sees herself as prey.  Even if your reader doesn’t make the connection consciously, subconsciously it will carry meaning.  Remember, good writing is hard work.
Much of this is applicable to other senses as well.  Sight, touch, smell, taste, and even emotions.  So practice.  Jump into that lake, smell the musk of decaying leaves, study the moon’s glare upon the surface, feel the pinch of minnows nibbling your toes, and experience life as only a writer may.  Then, put it on paper.

Lincoln, Lawyers, and Murder on the US Frontier: Author Jonathan F Putnam

This week I'm hanging out with Jonathan F. Putnam, author of the Lincoln and Speed Mystery Series. Jonathan has been a trial lawyer in the New York City office of the international law firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP since 1993.  He specializes in representing companies and individuals in complex commercial litigation, often disputes involving intellectual property such as patents or trademarks. 

Jonathan graduated from Harvard College in 1988 with honors with a degree in History and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1992.  At Harvard Law School, he served on the Harvard Law Review and received the Fay Diploma for graduating first in his class.  After graduation he worked as a law clerk to a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. for a year before joining Kirkland & Ellis.

Despite being a "debut" author, Jonathan is well into his third novel. To learn more about Jonathan F. Putnam and his books, sign up for his newsletter on his Website.


Lawyer, author, father, marathon runner ... How do you balance everything you do?

While I’m still ‘of counsel’ to my law firm, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, I spend the vast majority of my professional time at this point on my writing career.  It’s much easier to balance everything now than it was when I was a full-time partner at a large New York City law firm, routinely working 60 hours or more a week and traveling around the country for hearings and trials.
In fact, I spent about four years trying to write my first novel while still working as a full-time law partner.  One of my writing heroes is Scott Turow, and he famously wrote his first blockbuster Presumed Innocent while commuting on the commuter rail train in Chicago, a little bit each morning and a little bit each evening.  I was also riding a commuter rail train every day (into New York City) and I figured that if I followed Turow’s example, after a couple of years I’d have my own Presumed Innocent.  Instead, after three or four years, I had about five pages, total, of incoherent scribbles.  It wasn’t until I took a leave of absence from my firm that I found the time and mental bandwidth to make real progress on my story.
Most of the published authors I’ve come to know still have a day job in addition to their successful writing career.  I don’t know how they balance everything.  I am in awe of them.
You have a degree in history and a law degree. Those explain your facility with combining history and a character who is a lawyer, but why focus on Abraham Lincoln? What about that specific person and time period piqued your interest?
Since I’ve always loved history, and the time-honored advice “write what you know” seemed sensible, when I first had the idea to write a novel I immediately thought about writing a law-related historical fiction. I needed a famous lawyer from history to be my protagonist.  After several weeks of looking into various notable lawyers from the past, I settled upon Lincoln, who was a prolific trial lawyer long before he became the President who ended slavery and won the Civil War. 

Lincoln is an iconic figure of lasting interest to the reading public.  Better still, for my purposes, while many aspects of his Presidential career are well-known, the two prior decades in which he toiled as a private trial lawyer in central Illinois are much less so.  The relative obscurity of this period gave me some historical maneuvering room to cook up compelling historical fiction.  And as a defense lawyer representing someone accused of a crime, Lincoln was well positioned to be the protagonist in a murder mystery, solving crimes in course of his legal work.

In real life, Lincoln shared a room in Springfield, IL from 1837 to 1841 with Joshua Speed, the second son of a wealthy, large slave-owning family from Louisville, KY.  Speed is Watson to Lincoln’s Holmes in my series: the roommate and best friend of the great man (in real life as in fiction), the sparring partner and investigative sidekick, and the narrator of the books. 

My series is set during this period when they actually lived together, which is a fascinating but little known period of American history, especially on the frontier where they lived.  Life was hard, and people died from all sorts of natural and unnatural causes (good for the mystery writer!).  The nation was riven by slavery – Illinois was a nominally free state but a virulently racist and strongly pro-slavery one – but the national conflict was still several decades from coming to a head.  Transportation and communication technology were just starting to change the way of life: for example, steamboats had recently revolutionized trade and travel along the Mississippi, but it would be a number of years still until the railroad, to say nothing of the telegraph, reached Springfield.

How does splitting your time between the US (New York City) and England (London) impact your view of the world?

London is an amazing world city with fantastic culture, unmatched history, and a vibrant writing scene.  I’ve found it a very creative place in which to write.

London has also proven unexpectedly relevant to my books, even though they’re set on the American frontier of the mid-19th century.  My latest book, Perish from the Earth, is set along the Mississippi River in 1837, when the great river was the western edge of the frontier of our young country.  London has a fantastic series of canals left over from the early Industrial Revolution.  These days the canals are used for recreation, and a number of people also live “off the grid” in houseboats moored to the side of the waterways. 

I spend a lot of time running or bike riding with my youngest son along the canal towpaths.  One day I was biking along, watching people smoking and drinking, loving and fighting, and it hit me: if you abstract away the 21st century technology (iPhones, etc.), the London canals of the 2010s and the people who live and work along them perfectly recreate life along the Mississippi River of the 1830s.

What kind of research did you do (and continue to do) for your series? Original documents? Non-fiction? Do you visit the locations?

My books are the product of substantial original historical research.  I’ve visited the locations where my books are set; read lots of documents from Lincoln’s real-life legal cases; read innumerable first-person accounts from the 19th century about Lincoln; read the substantial extant correspondence between Lincoln and Speed and other members of Speed’s family, and conducted additional original research on Speed, who is a much less well known figure in history.

One set of sources in particular that I’ve mined are contemporaneous travel diaries.  Westerners at the time, like Lincoln and Speed, were mostly concerned with survival.  Life on the frontier was hard.  They tended not to write down a lot about their everyday lives.  But lots of Easterners and Europeans traveled to the Mississippi River Valley to see first-hand what was then the “Wild West”.  It was sort of the European Grand Tour in reverse.  Many of these travelers kept diaries, and I’ve tracked a lot of them down.  They provide an unmatched record of the details of daily life on the frontier in the 1830s, and I’ve relied on them to create in my books what I think is a very realistic portrait of Lincoln & Speed’s life and times.

How did the experience differ for you in writing your first, second, and now third book in the series?

On the good side, it’s a completely different experience writing a book when you know you already have a publisher.  In that way, the second and third, etc., books in the series are much more … comfortable, I suppose – to write.  Put differently, I worry as I’m trying to fall asleep about making the books as good as possible, but I don’t worry about having to sell them.

The flip side – and this is a problem I’m thrilled to have – is the multi-tasking.  I spent the past twelve months promoting my first book, These Honored Dead (which was published in August 2016); working with my publisher on the final edits and production of my second book, Perish from the Earth (published last month), and doing the actual writing of my third book, Final Resting Place (due to my publisher next month).  So I’ve been working on three books simultaneously, each in a different stage of the publication process.  Again, I’m very lucky to have this situation, but it can be a little head-spinning sometimes. 

What are you working on now?

I’m very excited that my publisher, CrookedLane Books in New York, is continuing with the Lincoln & Speed series.  I am just about finished with the manuscript for book 3, Final Resting Place, which will be published in the summer of 2018.  Then I’ll be turning my attention to book 4.  I have a pretty good idea about what the story will be (hint: Mary Todd will play a large role), but I have yet to put pen to paper.  Book 4 should appear in stores in the summer of 2019.

Final Words of Wisdom:

A friend of mine who’s an independent movie director has a great saying: It’s always ‘no’ until it’s ‘yes’.  Or, put differently, as a writer you need to be wired to hear ‘no’ as ‘not yet’.  It’s contrary to our usual experience, but you need to take ‘no’ as encouragement – someone actually cared enough to respond to you! – and to push ahead.

My own path to publication illustrates this exactly.  My agent sent my first Lincoln & Speed manuscript around to about two dozen publishing houses. All of them said ‘no.’  But one of them said, ‘no, but we do really like this idea of young Lincoln as told by his best friend Speed,’ and the acquiring editor there worked with me for several months on different rounds of edits.  In the end, they passed.  My agent told me he’d never had a house spend so much time working with an unpublished author before passing, a statement that simultaneously made me pretty good and absolutely terrible.

I spent another year writing a new Lincoln & Speed book.  A few months after I’d finished, my agent happened to have lunch with that same acquiring editor, who was now running his own publishing house (Crooked Lane Books).  The editor asked about me, and my agent sent him the new book.  A few weeks later, I heard back, ‘no, but you’re getting closer,’ and the editor attached three pages of very helpful, very detailed notes.  He also invited me to follow up with him directly, although when I did he never returned my calls or emails.  Nonetheless, I spent another year rewriting the second book in response to the notes.  Three weeks after I submitted the new manuscript, the editor called to offer me a two-book contract.

So, depending on how you count, my current publisher himself said ‘no’ to me four or five times before he said ‘yes’. It’s always ‘no’ until it’s ‘yes’.  Keep writing!

Finally, it takes a village to make a successful book series, I hope you'll join me on social media.

Thanks for joining me this week Jonathan! I'll be seeing you on Twitter and Facebook!  

Writing Dark Thrillers: Debut Author S. A. Stovall

This week I get to hang out with ITW Debut Author S.A. Stovall. Her first novel, Vice City is available on Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and DSP Publications

S.A. Stovall grew up in California’s central valley with a single mother and little brother. Despite no one in her family having a degree higher than a GED, she put herself through college (earning a BA in History), and then continued on to law school where she obtained her Juris Doctorate.

As a child, Stovall’s favorite novel was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. The adventure on a deserted island opened her mind to ideas and realities she had never given thought before—and it was the moment Stovall realized that story telling (specifically fiction) became her passion. Anything that told a story, be it a movie, book, video game or comic, she had to experience. Now, as a professor and author, Stovall wants to add her voice to the myriad of stories in the world, and she hopes you enjoy.

To learn more about S.A, follow her on Twitter @GameOverStation


In addition to being a debut author, you went to law school and teach history. How do those three things intersect?

First off, having a law degree and a history degree help me craft stories, especially for thrillers (which often have a legal aspect to them) and sci-fi-fantasy (as worldbuilding draws a lot from human history). I want to thank all my professors over the years for their insights and knowledge. It’s because of them that I can do what I love.

Secondly, teaching history at a college level helps me interact with people I otherwise would never meet. I see people from all walks of life and understanding them helps craft believable characters in my stories.

Overall, my knowledge and experience is the foundation from which I build each new tale.

Tell us about your path to publication.

My path to publication is a traditional one, I think. Well, as traditional as you can get in an industry where every path to publication is a viable one.

I wrote several novels (epic fantasy, 240k+ words) before my friends convinced me to pursue a path in publishing. Once I decided, I went to a few writing conventions and learned the ins and outs of industry. Specifically, I learned what agents are looking for, what editors are looking for, how to craft an engaging query letter, and to how to engage the audience from the first page.

After that, I wrote a few more novels (Stephen King famously said you need to get a few million terrible words out of your system before you write anything worth reading) and managed to gain the interest of several agents. The agent I signed with really liked my debut novel, VICE CITY, and I signed with him after talking about it with my family. (Shout out to Evan Marshall, who is awesome—check him out if you’re looking for an agent!)

Since then, he’s sold two novels for me, and continues to take my new novels (commenting on them when I need to change something, and offering up praise when he thinks they work) so I love working with him.        

Along the way I sold a few short stories and novellas, but novels are my passion and I focus my efforts on those more than others.

What kind of research did you do for your debut novel?

I read up on Chicago for a long period of time. I was originally going to set the novel there, but after some consideration I opted for a fictional city instead. That way if I had corrupt cops, or lots of gang activity, I wouldn’t be insulting the men-in-blue of Chicago, nor would I be making light of the actual gang violence that happens in Chicago on a daily basis. Additionally, I have more freedom with the layout, population, and industries, all of which helps me craft interesting stories.

I have the legal stuff down, and I know a fair deal about guns, so my primary area of research was the city itself (which is darker version of the real-world Chicago).

You write in first person, present tense. What made you choose that style?

I like first person, present tense because it feels more immediate—the action is happening right now, this isn’t a story that happened years ago.

Additionally, first person is great if the main character has a lot of voice and personality. Their attitude colors the whole feel of the novel. A story told by a jaded old veteran feels a lot different than a story told by a wide-eyed high school student, that’s for sure, and my protagonist is a guy with a lot of colorful things to say about the world.

And since my novel, VICE CITY, is more of a noir novel, it’s fitting that’s it’s told from the viewpoint of a single person, rather than a detached third person narrator.

Your writing is dark and violent, how do you get yourself into that mindset? (I often think I should learn to write darker!)

I love books with a solid tone. I love it so much I even wrote an article on it for The Thrill Begins! "How Do I Write Tone?" 

And dark/gritty settings are some of my favorite in terms of tone. Maybe it’s because I live a happy life with friends and family that I enjoy seeing darkness in my entertainment. It’s a world and setting I would never want to personally live in, but stakes are high and the consequences dire. That kind of excitement gets my heart rate up, even if I’m just reading a book.

I get myself into this mindset usually through other mediums—old gangster movies, comic books with hard grit, or even music with a melancholy melody. These sources of inspiration get me thinking about the darkness that dwells in all corners of life.

I almost always end on a happy note, however.

But the happy ending feels earned when the protagonist goes through so much to reach it. It’s the best way to end to a sprint through a gritty crime thriller!

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a sci-fi adventure novel. Science-fiction is my first love—all my favorite books fall into that category—and I think I’m always going to write in that genre, even if I continue with my thriller series.

Final words of wisdom:

Don’t stop writing.

I got tons of rejections out the door, which is a common story among writers. If you continue to write, you’ll get better, which increases your chances of getting noticed, which increases your chances of succeeding. If you stop, all your chances fall to 0, so persevere!

You can do it!