This blog is by Susan Berliner, author of supernatural thrillers ("DUST," "Peachwood Lake," "The Disappearance," "Corsonia," "After the Bubbles," "Soldier Girl"); short story collections ("The Sea Crystal and Other Weird Tales," "George's Mother and Other Weird Stories, "Crash Effect and Other Weird Stories"); and a memoir ("Doing the Write Thing"). This page contains blog entries from July 1, 2009 - December 28, 2009.

Varying sentences - December 28, 2009

I'm 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.)

As a 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 remedy.

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Using your senses - December 24, 2009

I'm 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!

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Details revisited - December 18, 2009

On 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 straight.

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.

As I 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.

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Marketing messages - December 15, 2009

I'm 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.)

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Using writing software - December 11, 2009

An 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.

Of course, 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."


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Character perception - December 8, 2009

If 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 actresses.

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

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Paranormal fiction challenges - December 4, 2009

[This entry is adapted from a post for last month's Virtual Book Tour that never appeared online]

Although DUST 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.

In 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!

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Dialogue tags revisited - December 1, 2009

On 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 insist!"

"I said I won't!"

The aim is to keep readers aware of the speakers while moving the story along-- not to distract them.

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Virtual tour thoughts - November 27, 2009

Now 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.

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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)

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Pausing with paragraphs - November 20, 2009

Recently, 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!

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Making time to write (Part 2) - November 16, 2009

I 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!"

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Creating characters - November 12, 2009

In 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!"

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Book signing at Barnes & Noble - November 8, 2009

Yesterday's 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 book too.

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!

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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!

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Writing by hand vs typing - November 1, 2009

How 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 hand.

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.)

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Writer's block - October 28, 2009

In 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 missing pages.

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.

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Getting ideas - October 23, 2009

At 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...

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Tips for a new novelist - October 20, 2009

A 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 method.

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.>

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Drawing on job experiences - October 17, 2009

It's 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.

As 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.

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When the muse hits - October 13, 2009

A 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.

What 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 used).

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.

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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 too.

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.

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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! :)

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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 development.

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:


Keeping track of details - September 29, 2009

While 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.

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Making backward revisions - September 25, 2009

I'm 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.

However, 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.

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Describing characters - September 22, 2009

Continuing 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!

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Continuing characters - September 18, 2009

Readers 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.

I 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.

Maybe 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."

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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 frustrating--publishing experience.

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!)

It helps 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.)

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Making time to write- September 11, 2009

I 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!

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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 serene-sounding name.

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!

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Those terrible typos - September 4, 2009

Everyone 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?

A writer 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!

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Colorful dust devils on Mars? - September 1, 2009

Readers 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 Earth.

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

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Casting characters - August 28, 2009

If 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!)

Just 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?)

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Characters in charge - August 25, 2009

In 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

Last 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 entertaining!

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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!

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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.

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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?

From 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' thoughts brief.

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.

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Making revisions - August 9, 2009

I've 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.

Just 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.

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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 needed names.

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.

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Short scenes and chapters - August 2, 2009

When 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.

In DUST, 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!

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Research for DUST - July 30, 2009

I 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

I 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!)

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Yesterday's book signing - July 26, 2009

I'm 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.

Many 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!

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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.

One 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.

Here's 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!

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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!

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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 questions.

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.)

Here's 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 gone.)


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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!

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The writing routine - July 9, 2009

I 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 it!

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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.

I 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:


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Where to see dust devils - July 2, 2009

Okay, 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.


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How I got the idea for DUST - July 1, 2009

When 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.

In 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.

I 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.