Susan Berliner is the author of the supernatural thrillers, "DUST," "Peachwood Lake, "The Disappearance," and the new novel, "Corsonia." This page contains blog entries from July 1, 2009 - December 28, 2009.
Varying sentences - December 28, 2009
not a flowery writer. I tend to avoid long convoluted sentences, even
in my descriptions. However, as I reread the manuscript of my latest
novel, I'm finding too many short simple sentences. Sure an occasional
"He smiled" or "She shrugged" is fine, but an overabundance of two- or
three-word sentences on the same page doesn't work. It reads poorly and
distracts the reader. (At least, it's distracting me.)
result, in an effort to improve my novel, I've been lengthening some of
these short choppy sentences. Here are a couple of examples: "He smiled
at the woman's clever remark" and "After listening to his explanation,
Mary shrugged." As with many writing problems, variety is the best
* * *
Using your senses - December 24, 2009
a visually-oriented person, so when writing a description, I find it
easy to focus primarily on what I see. However, since we experience life
through all of our senses--hearing, touch, taste, and smell, in
addition to sight--I always aim to make my writing appeal to more than
just the reader's eye.
Last night at a dinner buffet, I stood on
line appreciating a variety of sensory images--the colorful salad
display, ice-cold counters, savory meat aromas. Then, behind me, I heard
an unexpected loud clanging noise. Turning around, I saw a cart of cups
and plates being wheeled in. Now that's not a sound I would have
written into a buffet scene description, but I think it would add an
interesting element to the narrative, making it much more vivid.
Being a writer certainly involves observing and listening! Have a very Merry Christmas!
* * *
Details revisited - December 18, 2009
September 29, I wrote about trying to keep track of details while
writing the first draft of a novel. Now that I'm editing the manuscript
of my third book, I'm even more concerned about keeping my facts
While small details aren't very important (eye color,
street address, etc.), incorrect information in a novel can be
distracting to the reader. At least, it is to me. In fact, I'm still
disturbed by an incongruous description in my favorite Stephen King
novella, The Langoliers: a
teen-age Orthodox Jew who worked in a McDonald's. (No! That would never
happen!) But Stephen King can get away with it; I can't.
reread my manuscript, I've found errors like variation of travel time
(10 minutes and 15 minutes for the same trip) and cell phone ownership
(character has a phone in one chapter--and doesn't have one in a later
chapter). I'm trying to write down as much information as possible, but I
can't chart everything. Like usual, I'm counting on my brain to be an
effective personal computer system.
* * *
Marketing messages - December 15, 2009
digressing a bit today to talk about marketing, which, unfortunately,
is an important subject for nearly every author (not for Stephen King or
Dan Brown, but for the rest of us non-best selling types). A few days
ago, I received an email with the following line: "Research has shown
that it takes approximately five impressions for a marketing message to
have an effect on an individual."
After reading that sentence, my feeling was: "Wow! That many?"
How do I get people to think about DUST
five times? I did my Virtual Book Tour last month and, hopefully, that
helped. But I can't constantly send emails, since I (and most folks)
hate being barraged with solicitations. Of course, when I meet someone
in person, I can mention my novel, but not constantly. It's a daunting
task to generate interest without being a pain in the neck! (Ironically,
at a book signing event, some people will purchase the novel after a
short conversation. But that's a one-to-one encounter and I can't make
enough book store appearances to become a successful author.)
So, as we enter the final countdown to Christmas, I hope those of you reading this blog will consider purchasing DUST--even
if you haven't had the prerequisite five impressions. As one reviewer
said, the novel is a "Great Christmas gift." Thanks! (Go to Order page.)
* * *
Using writing software - December 11, 2009
aspiring writer recently asked me if I use a software program to help
with my novels. My answer to her was "no." I don't need assistance in
organizing my ideas, which is strange because, with other types of
writing, I have to outline my work. But that's for non-fiction
assignments, not for novels.
When I begin a book, I need to know
the overall plot, the characters, the ending, and not much else. Somehow
(I don't know why), I'm able to sit at the computer each morning and
write at least a scene. My characters dictate the action and lead the
way, often surprising me with what they say and do.
this is just my way of writing a novel and, while it works well for me,
it won't work for most other authors. Everyone has a unique
approach--and, in this occupation, there is no right or wrong method. It
may help some authors to use writing software or to make detailed
outlines. I'm sure non-fiction writers and some novelists (especially
those who write historical fiction) require more direction. My feeling
is that whatever works best is right or, in this case, "write."
* * *
Character perception - December 8, 2009
you follow this blog, you know I visualize my characters as actors who
perform my novel on a stage or movie screen. However, a fellow writer
yesterday on Facebook had a different take on the subject. He said his
characters were real people he would never meet, not actors or
I'm not sure there's much of a difference between our
two viewpoints. Even though I imagine my characters as actors, I still
think of them as real people. In DUST,
for example, Karen is still Karen, no matter which actress is playing
her, and Jerry is still Jerry. Visualizing them as current movie stars
just makes them more real to me.
If you're one of the 25% of the
population who thinks as I do and visualizes book characters as actors,
check out this website and cast roles for DUST--or any other favorite novel: http://www.storycasting.com/work.aspx?id=4f9a2b40-3d60-4dc7-bc16-f2440184b4b7
* * *
Paranormal fiction challenges- December 4, 2009
[This entry is adapted from a post for last month's Virtual Book Tour that never appeared online]
is a realistic (or urban) fantasy with just one supernatural
element--the evil dust swirl--it's still a fantasy, and to enjoy any
kind of paranormal fiction, the reader has to be willing to suspend
disbelief. Some people have trouble doing that. Many are nonfiction
readers; others prefer true-life novels. These pragmatists ask me
questions like, "How can the dust be evil? There's no such thing as bad
dust." Or they say, "Dust devils can't be red, green, and blue. They're
always white or gray." My answer is simply, "In my novel, the dust can
be anything I want it to be." That's the beauty of imagination.
some ways, urban fiction writers like myself probably have it easier
than authors of elaborate high fantasy. I bet writers whose stories take
place in mythical worlds, populated by strange, imaginary creatures get
even more flak than I do from pragmatic readers. But, on the other
hand, writers who deal with vampires, witches, and werewolves are
probably in better shape: Those supernatural beings are "in" right now. (Twilight anyone?) That means there's obviously a large paranormal fan base--and I hope some of these paranormal-lovers will read DUST!
* * *
Dialogue tags revisited - December 1, 2009
August 17, I wrote about overusing dialogue tags ("he said," "she
asked," etc.), mentioning it's unnecessary to identify speakers each
time they talk, especially when only two characters are conversing. I
thought I had eliminated my overuse of dialogue tags. But in editing the
first draft of my new novel, once again, I find myself deleting many
unneeded "he said"/"she said" tags.
I just read a book in which
the author tried to avoid this problem by having characters repeatedly
address one another by name. The trouble with this approach is people
don't talk like this:
"Mary, answer the door."
"No John. I'm busy."
"Mary, I insist!"
"John, I said I won't!"
To keep readers aware of the speaker, I prefer to insert an occasional descriptive line into the conversation:
Hearing the doorbell, John turned to Mary. "Please answer the door."
"No. I'm busy."
"I said I won't!"
The aim is to keep readers aware of the speakers while moving the story along-- not to distract them.
* * *
Virtual tour thoughts - November 27, 2009
that my November Virtual Book Tour is just about over, I've had a
chance to think about the experience. Overall, I feel it was successful.
During the month, DUST was
featured on many reading-related blogs, generating lots of publicity.
The novel received numerous reviews (the vast majority of them
positive), and my articles on various writing-related subjects appeared
online, as did my responses to several interviews.
What didn't I
like? While most of the bloggers followed the tour schedule and posted
material on their assigned dates, some didn't. In a couple of instances,
the bloggers were ill, which, of course, couldn't be helped. But
several others either ignored the dates or posted material late in the
evening. In that sense, I guess it's like a host showing up late (or not
at all) in a regular book tour.
Since I'm still somewhat of a
novice in the web world, I was amazed when one blogger first posted my
material at 6 pm--and covered up my information an hour or so later with
a new announcement. My tour coordinator told me this was called
"layering." To me, it felt like being on the cover of a newspaper--and
then being immediately shoved to an inside page. Depending on how
frequently the bloggers updated their sites, my material stayed on the
"cover" for an hour, a day, a week, or more.
My Virtual Book Tour was definitely a learning experience! If you'd like to see details of any of my stops, please check the Happenings page.
* * *
Genre-ly speaking - November 24, 2009
Today's reviewer on my Virtual Book Tour describes DUST
as "more sci-fi than paranormal." Other reviewers this month have
called the novel an "actioned scifi/mystery/thriller," a "mystery...with
a very new twist," and even a "cozy mystery."
I find these comments interesting because I never think of DUST
as either a sci-fi or a mystery story. To me, the novel is more of an
urban fantasy because it's set in reality and has just one supernatural
element: the evil red, blue, and green dust.
This just proves
that labeling a book doesn't matter; the genre is often debatable. What
matters is the story--and whether you call DUST
an urban fantasy, supernatural thriller, sci-fi adventure, or cozy
mystery--the end result is that the reviewers liked it! (See Reviews)
* * *
Pausing with paragraphs - November 20, 2009
a fellow writer asked me to critique his vignette. I tried to read the
approximately 5-page piece, but it was difficult. Why? The text wasn't
divided into paragraphs.
The paragraph form, which we often take
for granted, is an important writer's tool because it facilitates
reading. Separating ideas into paragraphs allows the reader time to
pause and digest the material.
When I write my novels, I aim for
short paragraphs. It's easier to achieve this goal with dialogue, since
each change of speaker results in a new paragraph. But with description,
paragraphing is left to the discretion of the author. I want readers to
comfortably enjoy my books and short paragraphs help. Reading for
pleasure shouldn't be hard work!
* * *
Making time to write (Part 2) - November 16, 2009
feel like a hypocrite. Just two months ago (September 11), I wrote a
blog on this topic. My message was that I treat writing novels as a job
and there's always time to write--"even if it's just a half hour."
Well, I'm supposed to be revising and editing my first draft of The Disappearance
and, for the past couple of weeks, I haven't found even thirty minutes a
day to do my "job." With three personal appearances and a month-long
Virtual Book Tour for DUST that
required articles and interviews, November's been tough. But now that
my book signings and talks are finished and I've written all my virtual
tour posts, I'm really hoping to get back to working on my new novel. I
miss my daily writing "job!"
* * *Creating characters - November 12, 2009
a recent interview I was asked if the characters in my books were based
on people I know. The answer is "not really." Most of my characters,
especially the main ones, come from my imagination. But some of my minor
characters are based on real people.
Karen and Jerry McKay, the main characters in DUST
aren't people I know. But they do have some attributes I'm familiar
with. Like Karen, I'm stubborn and dogmatic and my husband has a
Jerry-like sense of humor. (I'd love to say I have Karen's fortitude,
but I've never been battle-tested.)
The supporting characters in DUST
are a combination of friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and my
imagination. For example, Adam Ackermann, the teen science whiz, is a
younger version of a computer guy I once worked with, blended with
several other geeky tech people I've known.
As I write, I form images of characters, often from people I'm familiar with. But my books are fiction, not romans a clef
. No one will ever say, "Aha! That character's really ________ in disguise!"
* * *
Book signing at Barnes & Noble - November 8, 2009
book signing was another learning experience. Again, I did well by
greeting customers at the door and introducing them to DUST.
Like last time, I concentrated on the approximately 20% of shoppers who
admitted to being fans of supernatural fiction. Many listened politely,
skimmed through the novel, and accepted bookmarks. Most people who were
interested in purchasing the book did so right then; the customers who
said they would think about it rarely returned.
I greeted one man
who was already carrying a Stephen King paperback. Obviously, I didn't
have to ask him if he liked paranormal novels--and he quickly bought my
The one negative of the day was having to stand for so
many hours. Until I become famous--and people approach me instead of me
having to approach them--I can't sit behind a table and expect to sell
books. But, next time, I'm planning to wear more comfortable shoes!
* * *
Virtual book tour - November 5, 2009
I'm "touring" the Internet this month, promoting DUST (see Happenings).
So far, it's been a real learning experience, and, like everything else
involving book marketing, a lot of work. I've answered questions for
interviews and written articles that are appearing (or will appear) on
various book-related blogs.
Most of the posts I've submitted
have been on topics of my own choosing--a very good thing. This writing
"homework" has forced me to expand some of these little blogs into
lengthier articles and to create others from scratch. But now I have
additional material that I should be able to use in other venues, either
on the Web or in my in-person appearances. Of course, I've been so busy
lately promoting DUST that I haven't been able to work on revising and editing the first draft of my new manuscript. The woes of a writer!
* * *
Writing by hand vs typing - November 1, 2009
do "real" writers write--by typing or by hand? That's the question an
aspiring writer asked me a few days ago. My answer was that professional
writers do both. I think older writers, those who grew up before
computers were invented (like me), are probably more prone to writing by
I used to find it impossible to create at the computer. In
fact, until about ten years ago, I did all my writing long-hand and
then transferred the work onto the typewriter and, in later years, onto
the computer. Now, however, I mostly just type. It's faster and much
more direct. But sometimes, I hand-write, especially if I'm not able to
get to the computer and have an idea I don't want to forget. I'm
comfortable either way.
The aspiring writer said she wrote by
hand and wondered if that method could be hampering her work. I told her
not to worry about how she got her words onto the paper, as long as she
wrote them. If she felt writing by hand wasn't working, I suggested she
try typing instead.
The goal of every writer is to get those
words onto the paper. How they get there isn't at all important. (P.S. I
should disclose that I wrote this blog entry long-hand, but I do most
of my entries directly at the computer.)
* * *
Writer's block - October 28, 2009
a recent interview, I was asked if I had ever experienced writer's
block. Strangely, I never had a problem with it while writing DUST. However, when I was working on my second novel, Peachwood Lake,
I sat at the computer one morning, trying to write about a period of
time (an afternoon) in the narrative and nothing happened. No muse. No
characters took over the action. Nada.
Here's what I did: Rather
than sit and struggle, I skipped past that chapter and picked up the
story's action at a later point. Then, a few days later, when I figured
out what I wanted to write, I was able to go back and fill in the
While I certainly don't know the "cure" for
writer's block, for me the answer was to move forward and not agonize
about my sudden lack of creativity. If I had sat for hours, waiting for
the muse to strike, I would have become a nervous wreck, and, in that
condition, I wouldn't have been able to write anything.
* * *Getting ideas - October 23, 2009
Wednesday's book talk at the Mahopac (NY) Library, an audience member
asked me where I get the ideas for my novels. The answer is--from
everywhere. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know I got the
idea for DUST from a newspaper article about a dust devil that destroyed an auto body shed in Maine, killing the owner.
I got the idea for my second (not yet published) thriller, Peachwood Lake, from another newspaper story, this one about a jumping fish in Florida. But the inspiration for The Disappearance,
the novel I'm currently writing, came directly from my brain. No
newspaper article was involved. I've always loved reading time-travel
stories, so I decided to write one.
My next book? A movie remake
triggered one possibility for a storyline. I'll see if it develops into a
novel. Meanwhile, the ideas keep coming...
* * *
Tips for a new novelist - October 20, 2009
beginning novelist asked me today if I had any suggestions for him.
After thinking about his request, I realized I had no specific tips.
Writing a novel is such an individual undertaking: There are no rules or
road maps. I write one way; another author uses a completely different
When I began writing DUST,
I knew my plot, my main characters, and my ending. Then I sat at the
computer each day and created a scene of the book. Although I sketched
out some material beforehand, most of my notes were stored in my head
and I basically let my characters dictate the action. Even when I jotted
down ideas for specific scenes and/or dialogue, my written notes didn't
always work. The characters often had other ideas.
So how does
one write a novel? There's no "right" answer--just a "write" one: Follow
whatever method works for you, use your imagination, and create.
* * *
Drawing on job experiences - October 17, 2009
always easier to write about a job you already know. In my case, that's
the publishing industry. I've been a newspaper reporter, magazine
salesperson, and promotion manager for a large chain of shopping guides.
a result, when I needed to create professions for the dust's victims, I
placed a couple of characters in jobs I knew well--graphic artist for a
magazine and salesperson for a telephone directory (a position my
daughter once held).
With those two jobs, I already knew the
terminology and some of the problems the characters might encounter. It
made writing the chapters easier and, I think, more realistic. I didn't
have to do any research either because I was so familiar with the jobs.
* * *
When the muse hits - October 13, 2009
couple of days ago, I woke up at 5 am and couldn't go back to sleep. I
tried, but thoughts about the novel I'm currently writing kept drifting
into my head. Of course, this is both a good and bad thing. It's good to
get ideas; it's bad to get them when you'd rather be sleeping.
did I do with these new ideas when I woke up? I scribbled a couple of
them on a legal pad that I use for my "notes." I don't have a neat,
organized method of cataloging my thoughts about the book. Generally, I
jot a few down on paper--especially if I think the wording is
exceptionally good. Then, when I get to that point in the story, I
glance at the jumble of words, randomly written on one of the pad pages,
and see if the content still applies. Sometimes it does; other times,
it doesn't. I check off (or cross out) each idea as it is used (or not
I find I don't have to write down too many of my thoughts.
The paper's my security blanket, but I rarely forget any of the ideas.
Since they're part of the book I'm creating, the thoughts ramble around
in my brain until they're ready to be released. As long as my mind is
working, my head--not my notepad--operates as my filing system.
* * *
Realistic fantasy - October 9, 2009
DUST is a realistic (or urban) fantasy. It contains just one supernatural element: an evil swirl of colorful dust. Butthe novelis
set firmly in the real world. Even though the town of Rock Haven
doesn't exist, it's still a typical northeastern suburb. The condo
inhabitants are people we all know; their situations are recognizable
Most other types of fantasies are much more elaborate. They
take place in mythical worlds, often populated by strange creatures,
where everything differs from the norm. And then, of course, many
current fantasies deal with vampires, witches, and werewolves.
Even though DUST
is based in reality, some folks have trouble accepting any fantasy
concept. Many are nonfiction readers; others prefer true-life novels.
These pragmatists ask questions like, "How can the dust be evil?" or
they say, "Dust devils can't be red, green, and blue." My answer is
simply, "In my novel, the dust can be anything I want it to be." That's
the beauty of imagination.
To enjoy the fantasy genre, the reader has to be willing to suspend disbelief. Once that happens, the magic will follow.
* * *Adding touches of humor - October 6, 2009
I love to laugh and I enjoy reading humorous stories and novels that make me chuckle, so I guess it's not surprising that DUST has its funny moments (not laugh-out-loud hysterical, but smile-producing, I hope). Since DUST
is a thriller, not a comic novel, I didn't consciously try to inject
humor. But it happened anyway, especially in an early chapter involving
my heroine, Karen, and her blind date.
As long as the humor is
related to the plot and doesn't distract the reader, I don't see any
harm in an occasional funny line or subplot. I've also included bits of
humor in my second novel and in the thriller I'm currently writing. Real
life is often much too serious and even scientists agree laughter is
healthy. So, after reading this entry, remember to laugh--or at least,
smile. It's good for you! :)
* * *
Using graphics - October 3, 2009
Most of the action in DUST
takes place in the imaginary condo community of Rock Haven. As I wrote
the novel, I positioned the characters and events on various streets
(all named for European capitals) of this northeastern suburban
Someone reading an early draft of the book suggested
that I add a map of the condos, explaining it would help readers
picture the setting more concretely. I hesitated at first, but then
thought--why not? It might help, and it certainly couldn't hurt. That's
why you'll see this simple map at the beginning of DUST:
ROCK HAVEN CONDOS
Keeping track of details - September 29, 2009
I'm writing the first draft of a novel, I don't usually reread
everything I've already written. That would take forever! As a result,
it's easy for me to forget some details--the name of a street, a
character's eye color, a child's age, etc.
After completing my
first draft, here's what I do to keep track of some important facts: I
make a chart. The information I list varies according to the novel. For
example, in DUST I charted each
of the victims, listing their names, ages, street addresses, exact
nature of the attacks, and extent of their injuries.
I refer to
my chart many times throughout the revision process to make sure I've
got all the facts straight. But, of course, the chart isn't a fail-safe
solution. A novel has many minor details that can't easily be listed. I
try to keep most of those in my head and hope I remember them. If I'm
not sure of a detail, I review the manuscript to be certain I've written
it correctly. This takes time, but I'd much rather catch an error now
than after the book is printed.
* * *Making backward revisions - September 25, 2009
all for revising my manuscript. In fact, I do it all the time. Whenever
I read anything I've written, I almost always find something to change.
what I don't like to do is to go backwards and make significant changes
when I'm working on the first draft of a novel. For example, a few days
ago, I had finished writing a chapter, reviewed and edited it several
times, and started the next one. I was moving forward. Then I realized I
had left important information out of the previous chapter. I had to
interrupt my forward progress, go back and revise the earlier scene.
That was a pain!
Now I'm moving forward again, hopefully without
any interruptions until I finish my first draft. After that, I'll be in a
much better frame of mind to tackle the many, many revisions.
* * *
Describing characters - September 22, 2009
on the topic of characters (but not on continuing characters--that's
the previous post), today I'm blogging a bit on character description.
First of all, it's not my favorite thing. When I'm writing the first
draft of a novel, I'm far more interested in advancing the plot--showing
the way a character acts--than describing what he or she looks like.
In my early versions of DUST,
I mostly described characters in terms of age and was criticized,
rightfully, for doing so. When I reviewed the manuscript, I took out
many of the age references and tried to describe the characters in more
creative ways: What does he or she look like--hair color, weight,
height, clothing? What makes him or her special?
Character description is still not my strength--but I'm working on it!
* * *
Continuing characters - September 18, 2009
of this blog know that, when I write, I visualize my characters as
actors in scenes as if they were on stage, performing a play. At my
library talk last Saturday about DUST, an audience member asked if I continue to think about my characters after I finish a book.
had never thought about that question, but the answer is "no." I think
about the characters continually throughout the writing, editing, and
revision processes, which can be very lengthy. However, when the book is
completely done, so are my characters. With DUST, it's like Karen and Jerry finished playing their roles, bowed to the audience (readers), and walked off the stage--forever.
that's why, unlike some other writers, I don't envision my novels as
series or sequels. When a book is finished, the curtain falls, and it's
really "The End."
* * *
Talking about writing - September 15, 2009
I'm digressing a bit today because I gave my first solo talk about DUST
last Saturday afternoon at the John C. Hart Library in Shrub Oak, NY. I
spoke about how I got the idea for my novel, the writing process
(citing many of these blog entries), as well as the often complex--and
Although I was very nervous
before the talk, I surprised myself by being able to speak for more than
thirty minutes without sounding like a babbling idiot. (Audience
members said I appeared confident--but I sure wasn't!)
that most days I learn something new about fiction writing. And as I
learn, I try to incorporate this new information into what I write--and
what I say about writing. (To see photos of Saturday's DUST talk, go to Happenings.)
* * *
Making time to write- September 11, 2009
treat writing my novels as a job--something I have to do. As a result, I
force myself to write one scene every day (or nearly every day.
Sometimes it's impossible). My self-scheduled writing time is in the
morning, before a late breakfast.
Even if I don't feel like
writing, I close the door to the computer room and concentrate. First, I
review the previous day's scene and make corrections and/or revisions.
Then I tackle my new scene. I don't answer the phone or talk to anyone
in my house until I'm finished.
Maintaining a scheduled writing
time works for me. It's an approach I recommend to other writers,
especially those who complain they "don't have time to write." Of
course, I became a novelist after leaving my full-time job. If I was
still working 9 to 5, I couldn't write when I do. I probably would have
done my writing after dinner. But there's always time, even if it's just
a half hour. You just have to do it!
* * *
Settling on settings - September 8, 2009
I decided to locate DUST
in a northeastern suburb because that's the region I'm most familiar
with. Since I didn't want to be locked into factual details, I made my
town a mythical place. I liked the idea of a "Haven" name because it
would sound plausible since Connecticut already has so many of them--New
Haven, East Haven, West Haven, and North Haven. That's how I came up
with "Rock Haven."
In my second novel, Peachwood Lake,
the story again revolves around the setting and I wanted a tranquil
name to contrast with the deadly violence that occurs there. I chose the
name "Peachwood" because I couldn't find a real U.S. lake with that
The setting plays a lesser role in my third novel, The Disappearance, which I'm currently writing. I'm still working out the details, but one thing's definite: Weird things will happen there!
* * *
Those terrible typos - September 4, 2009
makes typos; none of us is perfect. I'm much more tolerant of typos
that appear on the Internet than in print because they can be easily
fixed. I hate seeing careless errors in books, magazines, and newspapers
since those mistakes are permanent. Or are they?
recently told me that he is able to change his novel each time it is
printed: He just makes the revisions and sends the new version of his
book to the publisher. That seems like a wonderful idea. He never has to
worry that a terrible typo will be part of his book forever!
* * *Colorful dust devils on Mars? - September 1, 2009
of this blog know that the supernatural dust in my novel is based on
weird reality, namely dust devils. However, unless you've read DUST,
you may not know that dust devils also occur on the planet Mars. These
Martian whirlwinds are huge, but otherwise very similar to the ones on
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit camera recently used
three colored filters to create a special-effects image of a purple,
teal, and yellow swirling Mars dust devil. Here's a link to the ScienceDaily article and colorful photo: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090804123242.htm
* * *
Casting characters - August 28, 2009
you've been reading this blog you know that, when I write, I picture my
characters as actors in scenes, so the idea of a movie version of DUST makes a lot of sense to me. Also, a number of readers have told me that the novel would make a terrific movie. (If any Hollywood producer wants to make me an offer, I'm listening!)
recently, I discovered an online site that's taken this idea to the
next level: www.storycasting.com has compiled a large listing of books
and encourages readers to choose the current actors and actresses they
want to play the characters. They've added DUST to their database, so if you've read the novel, you can go to http://www.storycasting.com/work.aspx?id=4f9a2b40-3d60-4dc7-bc16-f2440184b4b7
and cast the movie roles of Karen and Jerry, and any of the other
characters. (My choices for the leads are Juliet Landau and Ewan
McGregor. Which actress and actor would you choose?)
* * *
Characters in charge - August 25, 2009
an earlier blog (July 5, 2009), I wrote about how some novelists
(including myself) let their characters determine the action,
referencing an interview with noted author Elmore Leonard. http://www.aarpmagazine.org/people/leonard_making_it_up.html
Saturday, I was part of an Authors' Panel and a man in the audience
brought up the subject of characters, saying novelist Stuart Woods was
asked why his books had so much foul language. Woods' response was that
he didn't curse; his characters did.
I understand exactly what
Stuart Woods meant. It's almost as if the characters that I write about
have their own lives. Often, much to my surprise (and sometimes to my
annoyance), the characters say and do things I don't expect. But not
knowing exactly what will happen makes the writing experience much more
* * *
Onomatopoeic words - August 20, 2009
When I wrote DUST,
I wasn't sure how to handle the many loud noises that occur in the
book--assorted crashes, thumps, and sirens. I decided to quote the
noises in caps ("CRASH!," "THUMP!," "WHIRR!,") in the text. But I wasn't
convinced that using imitative-sounding words was a good idea.
Well, according to an editor who evaluated an early version of DUST,
my approach wasn't a good idea at all. Calling the sound-alike words
"distracting," this reader suggested substituting descriptive language
to convey the noises.
I revised DUST,
following that advice nearly completely. However, there was one
imitative sound that I refused to eliminate: Benny's "Grrrr...." I think
that onomatopoeic word works just fine!
* * *
Writing dialogue tags - August 17, 2009
When I first began writing DUST,
I wanted my dialogue to sound clever so, instead of just "Karen said"
or "Jerry asked," I attached a variety of tags to the conversation. I
used synonyms like "stated," "attested," "remarked," "recalled,"
"responded," "questioned," "queried," etc. You get the idea.
Then someone reading an early draft of DUST
questioned my creative tags, saying they distracted from the dialogue.
He suggested that I just use the basic "said" and "ask." I skimmed
through other novels and found the criticism was right on. Successful
novelists don't use clever dialogue tags. In fact, they avoid tags
wherever possible. If the reader knows who's speaking, it's unnecessary
to identify the person.
I went back through my manuscript,
deleted many of the dialogue tags altogether, and changed the remaining
ones to the basic "said" and "asked" (with an occasional "whispered" or
"shouted" if the action called for it).
But dialogue tags can be
fun. Here's an exercise you might want to try: Think of a line of
dialogue that can be followed by a punny tag. Here are a couple from Written Expression: A Specific Skills Program, a high school language arts series I co-authored many years ago.
"That brush hurts my hair," she bristled.
"I've always loved classical music," Ralph noted.
If you think of some punny dialogue tags, email them to me at sberlinerbooks.com and I'll post them here.
* * *
Showing characters' thoughts - August 13, 2009
Although I had written numerous non-fiction books and articles, DUST
was my first novel. As a result, I had lots of technical questions. An
important one involved my characters: How do I show their thoughts?
what I learned, this decision was up to me. I could just weave my
characters' thoughts into the novel, mixing them with the dialogue and
description. That certainly was the easiest method, but I didn't like
it; I preferred differentiating the thoughts. Another suggestion, which I
ultimately chose, was to italicize what my characters were thinking.
However, most experts cautioned against overusing italics because
they're more difficult to read. So I tried to keep my characters'
When my manuscript was evaluated, some of the
italicized thoughts were criticized for sounding too formal. Good point!
I went through the novel and shortened the characters' thoughts even
more, chopping sentences into phrases and eliminating some altogether. I
found that the scene often worked better when I described a character's
thoughts instead of having him or her say them.
* * *
Making revisions - August 9, 2009
been semi-following another supernatural novelist on Facebook. Whenever
she writes a chapter, she posts it on the site for everyone to read.
I'm fascinated by her ability to do this because I certainly can't. Each
of my novels is a work in progress and I'm constantly making revisions.
yesterday, for example, I realized I had left some important details
out of the end of Chapter 18 of the paranormal novel I'm currently
writing. Since I was finishing Chapter 22 at the time, I had to go all
the way back to Chapter 18 and make the changes. And I'm not talking
about just a couple of sentences; I added more than 300 words. This
happens a lot with my writing. I wish whatever I write was a "take" the
first (or second or third) time I type it. Unfortunately, it's not.
* * *
Naming characters - August 5, 2009
When I started writing DUST,
I had my main character, a librarian, whom I decided to name Karen and
her ex-husband, Jerry. Those names just seemed to fit. However, as the
book progressed, I added many minor characters--and nearly all of them
How does an author choose names? A few of my
characters were ethnic (Hispanic, Italian, Jewish), so that made it a
little easier. Also, I tried not to repeat first names so that readers
(and author) wouldn't get confused. I didn't want to use the same
beginning letter for too many surnames either. At one point I listed
names and discovered I had an abundance of "D" characters, so I changed
one last name to a "G."
Another author recently told me he holds a
reader contest: The winners become names of characters in his next
book. That's an idea I may copy. What do you think? Would you like to be
a character in one of my novels? Let me know.
* * *
Short scenes and chapters - August 2, 2009
I write a novel, I envision the action in terms of a play, positioning
my characters on the stage (i.e. page), acting out their roles in the
story. As a result, I mentally divide the action into scenes and acts
(chapters). When all the characters have finished performing their
parts, the curtain falls and the scenes, and then the chapter, ends.
many of the chapters are especially short. A recent reviewer, P. Cardi,
praised this approach. He wrote, "I especially like short chapters that
allow you to take a break without being in the middle of a plot line." (See Reviews
) So if you like an action-filled book with short scenes and chapters, you'll probably enjoy DUST
* * *
Research for DUST - July 30, 2009
think most novels require fact-checking. Obviously, the historical
novelist has to do much more research than the supernatural writer. But DUST
is an urban fantasy, set in the real world; the only sci-fi element is
the evil dust swirl. Once the reader accepts this supernatural premise,
the rest of the novel has to make sense.
Luckily, the Internet
has made researching facts easy for writers. Instead of rushing to the
library, I can use my computer to verify information. Like my main
character, Karen, I had to research dust devils. The information in the
first few pages of the novel is factual. If you haven't yet seen this
dust devil video of a Japanese kids' soccer game, it's worth a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOITKe-H6HE
also had to study electricity, difficult for me because science is not
my strength. Finally, I had to research one other important element of
the novel that I can't mention. (I don't want to ruin the suspense for
those of you who haven't read DUST!)
* * *
Yesterday's book signing - July 26, 2009
changing direction once again because I had my first book signing
Saturday at Barnes & Noble. I think it was successful, considering
the beautiful weather. (All summer, it's been cool and mostly cloudy and
rainy in New York. Yesterday, of course, was sunny, hot, and gorgeous!
It certainly wasn't a shopping day. If it wasn't my book signing, I
wouldn't have been there either!)
I learned several important
things: One cannot display candy at a book signing at this particular
Barnes & Noble outlet (maybe because they sell food and drinks?). I
had prepared a bowl of specially-chosen red, green, and blue (DUST-colored) candies. Looks like I've got a heads-up for Halloween.
Greeting shoppers with bookmarks and showing them a copy of DUST
is the way to go. Although many people weren't interested in
supernatural or horror novels (several grimaced and said Stephen
King-type books were too scary), most listened politely to my short
spiel, and more than ten strangers bought the novel.
customers just came to this particular B & N for iced coffee
drinks--not for any books at all. But, as another author pointed out, at
least the food court increases traffic. I'm hoping to do another book
signing at this store in November, when no one in New York will be going
to the beach!
* * *
Ideas from expected (and unexpected) sources - July 22, 2009
Of course, most of the ideas for improving DUST came from my own head. (It is my book!) However, I did get help from family, friends--and strangers.
relative advised me to add more information about the community's
reaction to the dust-related incidents, which resulted in two
chapters--one involving the condo association and the other centering on
the mayor. My police expert explained that only one officer (not two)
would respond to the various dust incidents. A friend suggested dividing
the book into time segments, which I did using the days of the week.
the unusual source: It came from the exterminator. He (unintentionally)
gave me an idea for one of the experiments Karen and Jerry use to try
to destroy the dust. I'll send an autographed copy of DUST to the first person who guesses the correct experiment. Let's see who's reading the book--and this blog!
* * *
Adding scenes and chapters - July 19, 2009
I'm back to writing about DUST
today, specifically how I fleshed out the book. Although I wasn't
constantly thinking about the novel, ideas for inserting additional
material into the framework of DUST
would pop into my head at strange times - when I was trying to fall
sleep, taking a shower, watching TV, etc. I couldn't control the timing
of these book-related thoughts--and still can't.
I remember one
instance at a large theater: While waiting for a show featuring
performances by several comedians, I suddenly got an idea for a new DUST
victim (Liza). I scribbled a rough draft of the entire chapter on the
show's program and other bits of paper that I scrounged. Now I make sure
to always carry a notepad in my bag!
* * *
First newspaper article about DUST - July 16, 2009
I'm switching gears today to write about the article that was published in yesterday's North County News,
the local weekly that covers northern Westchester and southern Putnam
here in New York. As a former newspaper reporter, I've done hundreds of
interviews--always as the interviewer. This was my first experience as
the interviewee, and it felt strange not to be the one asking the
I thought the writer, Bob Dumas, did a fine job. He
captured the weird reality (dust devils) that inspired the novel, as
well as the essence of the plot of DUST.
He also mentioned my upcoming book signing (Saturday, July 25 at Barnes
& Noble in Mohegan Lake) twice. Although the article does contain a
couple of small errors and typos, most people won't notice them.
(That's just the editor/proofreader part of me complaining.)
the best part of the story: Most men won't get this, but women will - I
actually like the photo! I'm posting a link to the article, so check it
out! (Unfortunately, the story's now in the archives, so the photo is
* * *
First draft of DUST - July 12, 2009
After nearly six months, I had finished writing DUST.
At least, I thought I had finished writing the novel. But when I looked
at my completed first draft, I counted a grand total of 79 pages. Since
I type my drafts in Verdana, a wide font, and double space between
paragraphs, my "novel" amounted to just about 22,000 words. It was more
of a pamphlet than a book.
What now? I asked my key readers for
input and was told to flesh out small scenes involving the dust's
victims into chapters--a brilliant suggestion! That advice added
depth--and many pages--to the novel. Of course, DUST was still in its infancy, not ready for publication. But at least it was now a book!
* * *
The writing routine - July 9, 2009
try to write each morning, aiming to finish one scene of my book. That
usually means I'm writing about 200-500 words. I know that doesn't sound
like much. Most writers seem to aim for at least 1,000 words a day. But
I like this slower pace, especially since I don't have a deadline.
(Hey, I'd love to have a deadline! Anyone out there want to give me an
advance on my third novel?)
Before I write a scene, I review the
previous day's work--and I always find something that needs to be
changed. Maybe some novelists can write chapters that don't require much
editing. Not me! Everything I write goes through numerous revisions.
It's a lengthy, time-consuming process. But writing a novel is a lot
like giving birth: The labor part is rough; but the end result is worth
* * *
Starting my first novel - July 5, 2009
So now I had my idea for DUST. What next? I had written lots of non-fiction articles, including some textbooks, but not much fiction.
knew my main character (Karen), the plot of the story, the ending--and
not much else. I always pictured novelists outlining each chapter before
writing it, but that's not what happened with me. I just sat at the
computer each morning and wrote. The words poured out, often without me
knowing what was going to happen.
Recently, I read an interview
with famed author Elmore Leonard who described his writing process in a
similar way, saying he makes it up as he goes along and his characters
let him know what comes next. So I've got good company! Here's the link
to his comments:
* * *
Where to see dust devils - July 2, 2009
after reading my first entry, hopefully you're intrigued by the concept
of dust devils. Some of you may have seen one of these mini-whirlpools
in action, especially if you've lived in the southwest. But many
others--including myself--have never seen a live dust devil.
When I researched these little cyclones for DUST,
here's what I did: I went to YouTube, typed in "dust devils" and
watched the videos. Some of them are awesome. Right now, the second
video shows a truck purposely driving through a dust devil. (Why? Who
knows.) But my favorite, and the one Karen refers to in the opening
pages of DUST, is the Japanese soccer game. I'm posting the link here. Check it out.
* * *
How I got the idea for DUST - July 1, 2009
people hear I've written a novel, many of them ask me where I got my
inspiration. Here's the answer: In 2003, I read an article about a
strange weather phenomenon called a "dust devil." Dust devils are
miniature tornados that are strong enough to toss dust and dirt into the
air. They occur all over the U.S., especially on hot spring days.
the little news clip that inspired me, a dust devil lifted the roof off
an auto body shop, collapsing most of the building, and killing the
owner. Since the story was weird--and it happened in Maine--I was sure
Stephen King would write a novel about some kind of supernatural dust.
put the article aside and forgot about it. Then, several years later, I
finally cleaned my desk and found the story. Stephen King had never
written a novel about weird dust. But, after rereading the article,
suddenly I had an idea. It turned out to be the basis for DUST.