When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve enjoyed writing stories for as long as I can remember. However, I never really planned on becoming an author. I was an English Literature major at the State University of New York at Oswego, but my career goal at that point was to go into teaching. I had the same goal when I started graduate school at SUNY Albany. Then, something funny happened on the way to class. I realized that I no longer cared for academia and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to spend the rest of my working life in that environment. That put me at something of a crossroads. Long story short, after a six-year stint in radio broadcasting, my professional career took an unexpected turn. I became a stay-at-home dad. The experience was incredibly rewarding and it didn’t take long for me to realize I needed something else to occupy my mind or I’d be checking myself into a room with rubber wallpaper. I returned to writing and, a brief ten years later, my first suspense novel was complete. All that said, I don’t think it really dawned on me that I was a writer until I did my first book signing and people actually showed up.
Do you have a set schedule for writing or is it only when the mood strikes?
I’d like to say I have a set schedule for writing but it often feels more like a schedule for procrastination. I am at my computer every weekday morning. In a perfect world, I would jump right into my work and not come up for air until I’ve hit my word quota for the day. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s ever happened. I usually begin by checking my email. I then visit the NFL page at espn.com to see if the Vikings have done anything amazing to finally win them that Super Bowl. Invariably disappointed, I then open up whatever chapter I’d been working on the day before. Of course, I can’t be productive without the proper music so I open iTunes and spend between two minutes and two hours making adjustments to one or more of my various playlists. I might check email again; and if I finished reading any great books lately, I might also spend some time jotting down some notes for a review. By the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you how incredibly important book reviews and book ratings are to authors, especially independently published authors like me. If you’re not in the habit of writing reviews, PLEASE try to change that. It’s not necessary to give lengthy critiques. Say a few words, give my books the five star ratings they clearly deserve and move on. Okay, so now that I’ve dealt with email, the Vikes, my music, my book reviews and my daily public service announcement, it’s time to get serious. And once I do finally start writing, I don’t stop until my quota is met. That’s why I allow myself the delay tactics I’ve described. I have some others too. Which ones I employ and how long they last depend entirely on how well my writing is going and how intimidated I am by what lies ahead. I realize it’s not an ideal work strategy but it gets the job done.
Do you set goals or quotas for yourself when you’re writing?
Yes. My minimum daily quota is 400 words. That may not sound like much and, in all honesty, it’s not so I have a few disclaimers. First, in addition to whatever primary project I have going at the time, I am also a blogger and book reviewer. Any words/pages devoted to those endeavors do not count towards my quota. Also, I have what I’m told is a bad habit of beginning each writing session by reviewing and potentially editing everything I wrote the day before. This is, at least in theory, counterproductive and I have to admit that some of what I painstakingly edit does ultimately end up on the scrap heap. On the plus side, although my first draft takes longer than it could/should, the resulting manuscript is quite clean so future rounds of revisions go much quicker and easier than they otherwise might. Plenty of authors would tell me my process is flawed but it works for me and I never close up shop without adding at least 400 words of new content; and again, that’s a minimum. I typically add more.
Do you always begin with some sort of a plan or simply go wherever the story takes you?
What I would prefer and what I actually do are two very different things. When I wrote “A Shot at Redemption,” my first suspense novel, I didn’t have an outline, a detailed synopsis or anything like that. I was new to the writing game, didn’t know what the heck I was doing and I proceeded accordingly. For that reason, and several others, the book took nearly a decade to complete. I was determined to do it differently with my second novel. Before I began “Parlor City Paradise,” I drew up some character sketches as well as several page summary of how the story would develop. I started writing in earnest and was off in an entirely different direction before I got to the end of the first chapter. As much as I think it would be great to have a storyline planned out ahead of time, I’ve learned that I am very much the discovery writer or so called “pantser.” I can’t know a character until he/she comes alive on the page; therefore, I cannot even begin to predict their reactions to a given situation. It is, at times, frustrating to never know where my story might take me. It’s also incredibly exciting when the nature of my quest is revealed bit by bit.
What do you think is the hardest thing about writing?
I think the majority of fiction authors would say they struggle most over dialogue. That’s actually one of my strengths. It comes easily and the flow, at least in my opinion, is very natural. It’s a different kettle of fish (whatever that means) when it comes to scenes that hinge on tight action or detailed descriptions. I am legally blind which means I literally don’t see much of what happens around me. I’m a very good audio observer; not so much when it comes to the visual. I can’t read facial expressions, study body language or anything like that. So, it always feels like a tremendous chore when I have to provide any sort of visual description(s) to my readers. I’m basically pulling all that stuff out of my… imagination. Ironically, I’ve been told my attention to detail is very good so I’m glad my difficulties in that area aren’t apparent in the finished product.
Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how long does it usually last?
Oh, I have writer’s block every day. As for how long it lasts, how long does a cold last or the line at the DMV? It varies and it always seems longer than it really is. I’m a discovery writer so I often don’t know where the story is going from chapter to chapter or even page to page. It sometimes takes me a while to figure it out. I also have a hard time moving past a scene or a single sentence if I feel the wording isn’t right. The sensible thing would be to plow ahead and worry about the little flaws later. I’ve tried that and I just can’t do it. So, for me, periods of writer’s block are as common as lawyers and dirty politicians.
Do you have any tips on how to overcome writer’s block?
I have three fallbacks when it comes to dealing with writer’s block. The first is dialogue. That’s my comfort zone so I’ll always go there if I can. The second is to introduce a new variable. It could be a new character, a scene shift, an event or something entirely different. That usually gives the storyline the nudge it needs. And if all else fails, I’ll take the passage I’m struggling with and rewrite or at least re-imagine it from a different character’s point of view. That tends to be a good exercise even if writer’s block isn’t an issue.
Do you read much? If so, who are some of your favorite authors?
I read constantly. It’s mostly mystery and suspense, the genres in which I write, but I also try to work in some non-fiction, historical fiction, horror, sci-fi or whatever strikes my fancy at the time. As for favorite authors, that’s kind of a moving target. There are plenty of authors I respect and admire. The only one I’d consider a favorite is Dick Francis and that’s because he’s most responsible for my own writing career. If you’re not familiar with his novels, Francis spent decades crafting wonderful stories about horse racing. I don’t know or care anything about the sport but he was able to make me fall in love with it for as long as it took to get to the end of the book. When I decided to give writing a try, I spent weeks trying to figure out what in the world I should write about. At the time, my areas of expertise were pro football, radio broadcasting, English literature and short track auto racing. I followed Francis’ lead and “A Shot at Redemption,” my debut suspense novel, deals with sabotage, assault and attempted murder and much of the story unfolds at a short track in Upstate New York. Thank you, Dick, for your unintended inspiration.
Have you ever tried designing your own book cover?
I don’t have the expertise for the actual design work. However, as an independently published author, I am ultimately responsible for my own cover designs. That proved especially interesting when it came to the cover for “Parlor City Paradise.” The novel is set in Binghamton, New York, recently rated one of the most depressing areas in the entire country. The primary characters in the story are, for the most part, low-lifes, deadbeats and losers. They end up in some pretty unsavory situations too. Although aspects of the subject matter are relatively dark, the overall tone of the book is uplifting and even humorous. I wanted a cover image that captured the desperation but also a hint of underlying optimism. I had no idea how to obtain such an image so I sponsored a photo contest. The winning photograph is now the centerpiece of the book’s cover and I’m absolutely thrilled with how it turned out. Special thanks to Robin Gilbertson, my affordable and supremely talented graphic designer.
What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?
the easiest aspect of writing is dialogue and I say that for a few reasons. First, I find it very comfortable and natural. I think I’m in the minority there so I won’t dwell on that. Second, I believe dialogue is the quickest way to really bring a character to life. Very simply, you get to know people by listening to what they have to say. And third, dialogue can be a wonderful tool when it comes to keeping the story moving. One of the cardinal rules of writing is to show not tell. In other words, you want to avoid the passive voice whenever possible. You can’t really be passive when characters are talking so dialogue is an effective means to stay out of that trap.
What is the most important thing about writing a novel?
Novels are often described as either character driven or plot driven. Of course, the really good books/authors give you both. If I have to choose, though, I’m taking the character driven story every time. You can have the greatest plot in the world. However, if the characters don’t bring it to life, it’s just going to lie there on the page like so much road kill. Dynamic characters, on the other hand, can transform the most mundane scene into something special. By “dynamic,” I don’t mean to suggest that every character has to be a superhero. They just need depth, personality and something with which the readers can connect. That, to me, is the bedrock of any novel worth reading or writing.
What would you say is your greatest challenge as an author?
I have more challenges than I care to mention but the one that most consistently causes me problems is probably punctuation. I’m perfectly comfortable with all the standard stuff. I tend to struggle when things get a bit more… complex. I come by it honestly. I have horrible eyesight so nearly everything I read comes to me in an audio format. Therefore, I never see how things appear on a printed page. How do you properly punctuate internal dialogue? How do you punctuate it if one’s character’s action is interrupted by another’s dialogue? What if one character is thinking while another is speaking? I try to be clear and, more important, consistent and I rely on my editors for the rest.
Are all of your books in the same literary genre?
I consider myself a fiction author and a suspense author. However, I have written one book (as yet unpublished) that fits neither category. It’s a football-themed cookbook called “21 Sundays of Fantastic Football Food.” It’s a collection of tailgate type recipes interspersed with mostly humorous stories about the NFL. There’s a personal touch to the whole thing as well. I don’t plan on becoming a cookbook author. I see this as very much a one shot deal. However, the idea came to me and I was passionate enough about it that I had to see it through. Writing is a solitary and often thankless endeavor so I think it’s important to follow your heart. That’s where happiness and satisfaction are found.
What type of book would be the most difficult for you to write?
I’m in awe of anyone capable of writing good historical fiction. The amount of research involved is mind-boggling. To then take all that compiled information and incorporate it into a workable storyline is simply amazing. Honestly, though, I think I’d have an even harder time writing romance. It’s far too predictable which, in turn, makes it not believable. That’s how I feel anyway. A young widow is struggling to keep the farm going. A ranch hand rides up looking for work. Gee, I wonder what will happen next. I am a discovery writer. The pleasure I take in writing comes from the mystery and the adventure. I create a character, introduce some sort of conflict and see how he/she responds. I typically don’t know how one of my novels will end until it’s 80% written. I can’t imagine what it would be like to start a project already knowing that the protagonists would eventually get their groove on, fall in love and ride off into the sunset. Where’s the mystery in that? I’m sure such a formulaic approach would speed up my writing process but the fun factor would go down exponentially.
Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into one of your novels?
In terms of already published novels, the answer to that is no. Nothing in “A Shot at Redemption” or “Parlor City Paradise” has any significant or recognizable connection to me or my life. However, in “Blind Switch,” my third novel which is currently underway, I do have a first person character that is somewhat autobiographical. She is an author and, like me, suffers from a severe visual disability. This makes her extremely vulnerable when she finds herself on the run from a killer. Strangely, I’m having a more difficult time with that character than any of the dozens of others I’ve created. Maybe I’m just too close to the subject matter. I’m happy to report that bit about being on the run isn’t autobiographical at all… at least not yet but you never know what tomorrow might bring.
How realistic are your books?
That’s kind of a loaded question because there’s a world of difference between realistic and believable. There’s nothing realistic about “The Hunger Games,” the Harry Potter series or “James and the Giant Peach.” Those stories are, nonetheless, believable because they’re written so masterfully. The goal of any author, regardless of genre, is to create a level of realism the reader can accept without making a conscious effort to do so. This is obviously more difficult with some genres than others. Introduce a dragon, a vampire or a talking caterpillar into your story and you might have to work a bit harder to sell that bill of goods to the reader. I write straight up suspense novels. They are set in real places and the characters are as real as I can make them. I actually think that’s one of my strengths as a writer.
Is it true that anyone can be a writer?
Is it true than anyone can be a doctor, a lawyer, a ditch digger or the President of the United States? For better or worse, the answer is yes. Of course, you can’t become a writer just by picking up a pencil anymore than you can be president just because you learned how to put on a suit. Okay, so maybe that’s a bad example. The point is that writing is a job like any other and should be treated as such. There are skills, tools, techniques and tricks of the trade. Can you write a book without bothering with any of that stuff? Sure, it might even be good too but the odds are against it. If your motivation for becoming a writer is that it looks easy, I would respectfully recommend you find something else to do with your time.
What do you do in your free time?
It occurs to me now that I am never very far from my writing because it’s always in the back of my mind. Perhaps that’s why I don’t sleep very well. But in terms of free time, I devote most of it to reading. Since becoming a fiction author, I read very differently and it’s made me a lot more attentive. I’m also a book reviewer so I pay attention for that reason as well. From September through January, I watch a whole lot of football. I keep a sort of football journal and add an entry anytime a player, coach, ref or fan does something especially boneheaded. I’ve compiled so many such entries that I’ve written a football-themed cookbook. It’s full of those stories and a whole lot of really good tailgate type recipes. The book is called “21 Sundays of Fantastic Football Food” and it should be out prior to the start of the 2017 season. Cooking is another hobby, as you’ve probably guessed, and I’ve been a music lover my whole life. I don’t write about music, at least I haven’t yet, but references to songs, lyrics and/or artists often pop up in my novels.
Have you ever wished you could rewrite any of your novels? If so, which one(s) and why?
I think it would be interesting to rewrite “A Shot at Redemption” and give Cash Douglas, the story’s protagonist, a first person point of view. Cash is a supremely talented race car driver but he’s considered an outsider and even a black sheep by fans and his racing peers alike. That’s because he’s spent most of his career jumping from car to car and track to track, following the big paydays and stepping on a lot of toes in the process. He has good, extremely personal reasons for his actions. I’m going to seal the record there and file the rest under spoiler. I chose a third person limited POV for the book so the camera lens is on Cash throughout. It works quite well, but I think now a first person narrative would reveal greater depth of character and establish an even stronger emotional connection with the reader.
Would you say your writing career has been successful?
I was successful or at least accomplished as soon as I finished my first novel. That’s an endeavor many begin but relatively few are able to see through all the way to the end. I don’t know if that makes me a one-percenter but certainly puts me in the minority. I’ve since finished a second novel and I have a third on the way along with a rather unique football-themed cookbook. In terms of simple production, I feel like I’ve been a tremendous success. Honestly, though, I have the bar set a bit higher than that. I have no aspirations of becoming rich as an independently published author. It happens but definitely not often. I’d be satisfied if I got to a point when a fair number of people knew and cared what I was doing. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved that yet. I’ll consider myself a success if/when I do.