Five Fiction Sites That Tell the Facts


Once in a while I do a round-up post that lists my go-to sites for fiction-writing advice. Maybe not so oddly, some of the same names come up over and over—not because I’m lazy (don’t roll your eyes), but because the people that populate these sites know their stuff.

And that stuff is all about how to write, how to think about writing, how to write about thinking. As well as all that gritty craft stuff: story arcs, theme, setting, character development, side plots, secondary characters, beginnings, endings, denouements and other fancy words that might be spelled “climax,” and maybe even how to use a semicolon once in a while. (Hint: use tongs.)

Most of the solid citizens below have newsletters that will remind you, with pleasure, why you subscribed.

Writer Unboxed

Consistently good pieces on craft and craftiness (and an occasional jeremiad on the trials of the writing life), written by established writers, up-and-coming writers, and writers who recently realized that every letter of the alphabet is theirs. This is a strong writing community: the comments section is often the heart of the writerly dissection, and that’s saying something, because the posts are gold.

Steven Pressfield

Frank discussions on writing foibles and follies, from a guy who made “The Resistance” mean more than just rolling your eyes at the White House. Pressfield is a novelist and nonfiction writer who writes with succinct zing on what keeps us from writing, and how to wipe the cobwebs off your keyboard and get going.

Jane Friedman

Friedman covers all things publishing, which is a lot of coverage. Tons of info on self-publishing and indies, with example best practices and how-tos. Her material ranges from good cover design to Amazon analytics (and speaking of Amazon, her information covers the industry practices as well). There are also guest posts on matters of craft for fiction and nonfiction writers alike.

The Creative Penn

An established thriller writer and writer of nonfiction books on writing subjects (many on self-publishing), Penn seems tireless, since she also puts out a great podcast on publishing matters. Good tools/resource lists on a spectrum of writing concerns. Do check out her free Author 2.0 Blueprint book. Penn, who probably couldn’t stand still as a child, now has a travel and writing blog and podcast too.

Funds for Writers

No, they aren’t just going to dole out dough to you, you underfunded writer you—I already asked. But the free newsletter lists lots of writing grants and retreats, writing contests, job markets and guest columns on writing, both fiction and non. Hope Clark, the author of many mystery novels (recommended!) who runs the joint, is tough and charming at the same time. Her column is personal, sometimes blunt, and always worth the read.

Bonus Lie
K. M. Weiland

Hah, I lied, so I could preserve the alliteration in the subject line. I must recommend six sites, because the sixth provides some sixth senses about writing fiction. Weiland, writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction writing guides, gives solid advice on pretty much every brick in the writing castle, from outlining, to writing scenes, to understanding the differences between plot and theme to every little way a character can wiggle. (And I have to say, “and much more,” because there really is a lot more on her site as well.)

Discount Shrubbery!

For the next 5 days, my novel set in Prohibition Boston, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, is discounted to $2.99 for the ebook version. You can get a lot of background information on the characters and the time period Rick Wilson (my co-writer) and I put together at www.swirledshrub.com.

Buy the hundreds of copies you crave here on Amazon or here through other online retailers. And if you already bought a copy, please consider a review at the retailer of your choice—we do so crave attention (and it really can help sales).

Even Book Covers Need Facelifts


As I have been trumpeting (excuse the noise), I released a new novel, Aftershock, this week. The book’s cover is the result of a deliberate and sustained back and forth between me and Alicia Neal, the illustrator, on all aspects of image, design, color and typography. You can read all about that process in this post on the dandy writer’s site, WriterUnboxed. The final cover took a lot of work and time, but it was worth it.

Choosing Aftershock’s cover—and finally publishing the dang thing: it only took eight years—made me revisit the cover of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles. That too was a process of give and take with the illustrator, who did approach the vision I initially had for the book’s cover, but didn’t quite get there. I take responsibility for that.

I didn’t work with her in the same way I worked with Alicia, which was to initially give her a number of model covers that exemplified aspects of design and emotional impact that intrigued me and move from there. Nor did we go over the iterations of the cover with the same amount of fine deliberation that went on between Alicia and me.

Not Quite Capturing the Fall

What I wanted in the cover was some metaphorical sense of fall and possible redemption. The novel’s final chapters are set in an apple orchard, where the protagonist has besmirched himself morally. There’s a close-to-final scene where he offers up an apple to a woman in the orchard. I wanted some resonance with Adam and Eve’s moment in the Garden, where as you recall an apple played a meaningful part.

But the imagery of what I accepted as the final cover above didn’t quite hold that feeling. However, I was impatient to get book out there (never a good idea, my writer friends) and I settled for a cover that was adequate, but not inspiring. To repeat: my fault, not that of the illustrator, whom I sure could have moved the piece forward.

Will Using Stock Images Put You in the Stocks?

Feeling good about Aftershock’s cover made me want to work again with Circles. This time, I wanted a photographic image and not an illustration. Hitchhiking is a major theme in the book, and I thought I’d have a strong image of my own from somewhere on the road. Nope. So I spent a day or so on free and paid image sites, and finally settled on the one that’s the lead image for this post.

That’s an inexpensive iStock image that allows royalty-free commercial use. The photo worked perfectly for the feeling of a forlorn hitchhiker on a lonely road. It was also large enough to wrap around for both a spine and a back cover. My galpal Alice, who has good experience with graphic design, worked it up into the cover you see. I searched for it using Google’s reverse image search to see if it appeared on any book covers, but couldn’t find evidence for that or from other searches.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence that using a stock photo on a cover might not be a good idea. Though the image I used is free of the licensing dangers expressed here, it might indeed be on a book cover somewhere that I couldn’t find, making my book a clone of sorts. (Here’s another piece on the appropriateness of stock images that’s softer on the perils.)

Anyway, I think I’m covered. (And don’t get any ideas about using that image for your hitchhiking novel, because I will turn off the electricity at your house and you won’t be able to get any of Justin Bieber’s tweets any longer.)

Joel D Canfield: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Keyboard

I can’t speak for the past, but at this moment, Joel wasn’t doing anything illegal with his mouth

Let’s throw open the stage (I hope he’s dressed) to Joel D Canfield, an author pal of mine who has just released his second novel in his Phil Brennan mystery series, A Still Small Voice. Joel has multiple books in multiple series, but the real multiplications are for you: he’s giving them away for free.

That’s a good bingo right there, but the kicker is that his books are good. I’ve read a number of them, and helped out with some editing on more than a few, and they are chockablock full of intrigue, whimsy, deception, suspense and high-nutrient storytelling. Grab a few and settle back (or jump up tensely when the story turns)—you’re in capable writerly hands.

Here I’ve asked Joel a few questions about his trade and where he’s going with his work:

You have written and published many business books, but in the last few years, you’ve turned your writing toward fiction. What steered that change? Did you always write stories, but are giving them their full due now?

I’ve always been a storyteller but until a few years ago never wrote any of them down. My narcissistic streak loved the attention I got from spinning a good yarn so I listened to good storytellers and stole their best ideas. When my wife’s social media business took off, I took on the household chores and stopped worrying so much about making money, which is possible with a business book, but a right challenge for fiction authors. In fact, I’ve recently started giving away every one of my novels to anyone who signs up for my newsletter, and reduced the prices at Amazon as low as they’ll allow.

You used to call your novels something like “Raymond Chandler cozies,” though I think you amended that a little. How would you describe the genre and general flavor of your fictional work?

I like putting morally rigid people in ambiguous situations, forcing the best bad choice. I used to call them Chandleresque cozies. But they’re not cozies, which carry certain implications about happiness and light. I love noir, revere Chandler and Hammett, but my books aren’t quite as dark. Like Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” and other books, mine are more about people and their struggles than about a puzzle to solve. They’re as much literary fiction as they are mystery. Since calling them “literary fiction” would be like announcing that my restaurant “serves food” I’m sticking with “mystery” as the short answer.

From your research, you are probably more familiar with story structure, story beats, character arcs and the like than many writers.  What do you look for in an editor to help with the underpinnings of a story (or provide with story mechanics)?

I don’t think it’s hard to find an editor who knows a good sentence. Harder to find one who knows a good story. I’m far more concerned about developmental editing, feedback on whether I’ve composed a ripping yarn, or just a ball thereof. Just as important is working with someone who respects my style, balancing what a reader wants to read with what I need to write.

You have several mystery series going, with distinct settings and characters. Will there be more of all? Have you considered specifically pushing the existing characters harder, challenging their stable pictures of themselves or anything on a structured, outlined level? Or do you think ahead more in broad strokes?

After an artistic crisis at the end of 2015 I spent the first 9 months of 2016 deciding whether or not to continue writing. The answer was yes, which launched a heavy rewrite of A Still, Small Voice. It also launched three months of introspection which included the kind of inner-demon-wrestling authors love to foist on their characters. I’m not all the way through, but far enough to know the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train. Having spit into the abyss when it stared back, I’m ready to ratchet up the turmoil and put each of my characters through an appropriate level of pain. They’ll thank me later.

Scotch or Bourbon? (Or for you, should I ask, Pancakes or Waffles?)

Irish. Particularly fond of Wolfhound. And waffles, please, topped with morally unambiguous toppings: butter and real maple syrup.

I can’t let Joel have the last word here, can I? The Bentley answer to that last question would be Waffles à la Wolfhound, with liberal dollops of whisky (or even whiskey) and syrup. Mmmm…