Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Truth is Stranger…

By Ralph Kern

I had the privilege of meeting Ralph when Tickety Boo Press hired me to edit his already Amazon bestselling book, Endeavour, for a rerelease. He was a pleasure to work with and to read, and if you have the opportunity to do either, I suggest you take it!

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Endeavor has been compared to A.C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End & is currently on three Amazon Top-100 lists.

That the truth is stranger than fiction is an old adage, a cliché even, yet one I have found to hold water. In my ‘day’ job, I’m a police sergeant. I run a team of fifteen officers and have been doing the job for the best part of ten years. Whenever I meet new people, they generally ask some version of “What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?”

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Very early on in my career, having ruined several friends’ and families’ meals in restaurants with an honest answer to that question, I realized that what they’re actually asking is “What’s the most PG13 grossest thing you’ve ever seen?” or even better, I just give them some amusing anecdote involving the dubious, and sometimes downright perplexing, behavior of people on the lower end of the social spectrum. As for the weird stuff—well sometimes I struggle to believe my own memory about what I’ve seen people get up to, let alone having to listen to someone else tell a story about it. Basically, people don’t want the truth…they want a sanitized version of events.

This brings me neatly onto the thrust of this post. Several years ago, I started writing. No particular reason for it other than a New Year’s resolution. I had a story idea and basically thought “why not?” So I started laying down my novel, Endeavour, which is a sci-fi piece bearing no relation to my career.

While that was ticking away though, I decided to try my hand at a number of short stories, partly to get my skills and drills up to scratch and partly because, as many writers undoubtedly find, a change is as good as a rest sometimes; writing shorts can be a constructive break from tapping away on your main work.

One of these short stories involved a pair of cops driving to a job. Now, to add a bit of context, I’m a member of an online SF/F community where critiques can be posted, and I thought I’d put up some sections for feedback. I hadn’t told anyone I was a police officer.

Anyway, back to my two cops. They get their next job over the radio, so one of them pulls out his phone (when the screen lights up, it shows a picture of his family) and puts in the address, bemoaning the fact that he only has a little power left.  With that, they start driving to it. Ahh, perfect opportunity to do a bit of character building! I thought. So while on route, they begin talking about a bit of personal stuff. All in all, that short passage summed up how we really go to jobs.

Controller: “Sierra XYZ, Control, burglary in progress at so and so address.”

Me: “Code five, give me the info on the address.”

Control: “It’s a so and so shop with several previous reports.”

One of us enters the address into the phone to nav it while the other activates the blues and two tones, and we set off.   Then we undoubtedly catch up on gossip.

Me: So, Bob. How’d that hot date go?

Cue a probably sordid tale with a variety of anatomically unlikely scenarios involved.

The critiquers slaughtered me! “Police would have sat-navs fitted into their cars,” they cried. “They would never be so unprofessional as to talk about personal matters on their way to a burglary,” they bemoaned.

Well, unfortunately, Her Majesty hasn’t seen fit to equip our cars with sat-navs, leaving us with trusty google maps. The other day, I held an in-depth conversation about what I had for dinner the previous night on the way to deal with an axe-wielding maniac. Why? Because when it’s your tenth job of the day you tend to get a bit bored with growling at each other in the melodramatic fashion that’s shown on TV.

Another person was asking for “reasons a mother would leave a baby.” An emotive subject, perhaps.  The standard response from many people was “a mother would never leave her child, maternal instincts, etc., etc. I made one brief attempts to relay some of the reasons I’d come across at work—the malicious, the nasty, or the just plain old very bad parenting. Needless to say, it’s not a discussion I’ll get involved in again any time soon.

I learned very quickly that the truth about jobs like the police (a role that by its very nature, tends to make for some entertaining tales) is that people are not really interested in the truth. They want the media version: Cops don’t talk to each other, they growl and bicker. Blue-light runs are exciting car chases, not the calm collected and most of all safe journey that they actually are. When people are shot, bullets leave neat little holes. When they’re in a car crash, the victim’s insides are where they should be—inside. No one soils themselves when they die. Fights are neat kung-fuesque-type affairs, not rolling around on the ground in the dirt and worse. And so on and so forth.

Is that my limitation as a writer—that I can’t write the truth convincingly? Maybe, but then it seems like I share the same failings as ninety-five percent of police fiction writers in that regards. You know what? I think that this holds true across the spectrum of jobs that people seem to like writing about, and more importantly, like reading about.  People often just want to hear that a knight is a paragon of honor and virtue. Not that he’s been in his armor for the last three months and smells like a hobos underpants. Astronauts never swear. (Geek moment, Pete Conrad, one of the men who walked on the moon, was borderline Tourette’s!) Secret agents never suffer from impotence and so on.

The moral of this post is, even with the best will in the world, sometimes you have to make things generally readable and relatable to a wider audience for them to enjoy it. And maybe, just maybe, sometimes the truth is too strange for fiction.

Endeavor, book one of the Sleeping Gods series, has been compared to A.C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and is currently on three Amazon Top 100 Lists: 

  • Top Time Travel
  • Top Hard Science Fiction
  • Top Space Exploration

An updated version of Endeavor will be released by Tickety Boo Press and available in spring of 1015 on Amazon.   

Blue Words

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Until I joined Toastmasters, I’d never heard the term blue word.  But I was painfully aware of their existence and the battle we all have about when and how to use them. Especially as a writer.

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A blue word is a swear word. Don’t worry, I intend on keeping the G rating of my blog.

Blue words are unique in that they are tied to us emotionally. We don’t typically utter them thoughtfully, but reactively. If you see something dreadful (like a car accident unfolding before your eyes), you probably utter a blue word. If you’re angry, you might react using a blue word. And, more interestingly, of all the words that leave your mouth, you may regret or even feel ashamed for uttering a blue word. How many times as children have we been told, “Never say that word”?

If you’ve ever lived in a foreign country, then you know some of the first words you’ll learn are the blue ones. Why? Firstly, they’re heard a lot, and, more importantly, they have no emotional power over you. For example, if I say merde, a Frenchman might be offended, but no American would be. It doesn’t mean anything to us. It lacks the emotional tie and, therefore, is just a word. Similarly, anyone who knows English as their second language has no hesitation using our blue words, though you and I may blush at their language. Again, these words mean nothing to them.

As a writer they pose a problem for me. I put my characters in some terrible situations. If I were in their place I’d react with the words, “Oh my God.” I do it all the time. But as a reader, these are boring words. They just don’t spark the same emotion reading them as they do when said. Yes, I can convey anger using the “f” word or someone’s sassiness with other swear words, but they don’t read well, so I use them sparingly, only when I need to make a specific point.

Which leaves me with a problem. Either I dismiss them (not very realistic!), or — and this is key—I make up new ones. I tend to the latter, which allows me to do more than just show emotion; I can give you some insight into the character or the situation.

For example, let’s say John meets Steve and thinks ill of him. I could write:

John thought, “He’s an a**hole.”

True, we all know how John feels about Steve, but reading this you might think John’s a bit crude, maybe a bit of an a**hole himself. But, I could write:

Screen shot 2015-03-10 at 8.19.50 PMJohn thought, “What a jerk.”

The reader gets the point without swearing, and still may have the same opinion about John. Let’s go beyond that. If we want to change the reader’s opinion of John let’s try:

John thought, “He’s got the charm of a malcontented garden slug.”

We have successfully made the point (John doesn’t like Steve) yet we’ve gained some insight into John, who now appears thoughtful, witty, possibly educated, and, well, I’d like to shake that man’s hand!

This applies to expletives. If pulled off well, your audience will know exactly what’s being felt and feel it themselves. Classic examples of this are

– Frack (from Battlestar Galactica)

– Frell (from Farscape)

– Dren (from Farscape)

– Gorram (from Firefly)

– Hell’s bells (from the Dresden Files)

Turns out it’s not easy. In fact,when you’re writing making up a word that mean “f you” stops you dead in your tracks, making you lose your momentum and your own sense of urgency, or danger, or surprise. Now I’m not in that space of “I’m being attacked by thirteen goblins!” so much as staring into space asking, “What’s a good word for…?”

As writers, we’re supposed to be creative. To connect with people, we’re supposed to be realistic, even in our fictional works.

Try it. Send me a couple of ideas while you’re at it. Cripes, I’m always looking for good swear words!

Jax Daniels is a member of the Leasspell writer’s group and the author of the award-winning novel, The Dead Man’s Deal, a witty, entertaining mystery set in the New Orleans the tourists never get to see…


Secrets of a Guinea Pig Whisperer Turned Author: Find your Niche.

By Lisa Maddock

Teddy and Pip are awesome. These most endearing guinea pigs keep you laughing throughout their whimsical adventures. When the Christmas tale came out, I started up a conversation with Lisa Maddock, begging her for a Halloween story for Teddy and Pip. In this house, we are nuts about two things: guinea pigs and Halloween—So what could be better than that?  A blog, perhaps?  Lisa is a successful indie author, so I invited her to share the secrets of her success.

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You don’t grow out of Teddy and Pip; they are for everyone! Wheek wheek! (Books 1, 3, & 4) Available on Amazon.

Hello! My name is Lisa Maddock. I am the author of A Tale of Two Guinea Pigs, and this is my writing story.

In my late 20s, I wrote a novel, and I thought it was great. I loved my characters and my story, loved the plot twists and the romance. I was confident and ready for fame. So I researched publishing companies and wrote query letters, agonizing over every word. I actually sent that 400-page manuscript off to a few publishers who did not require a query letter. It was so exciting!

Then I sat back and waited.

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And I got rejected and rejected and rejected.

So I hung up my typewriter, metaphorically speaking.

Years went by.

I had a baby.

More years went by.

I still had that urge to write something, to see my name on a book.

I started up the process again: re-researching the publishing industry, looking for tips and ideas. I had a great new story idea now (inspired by Maggie and Peanut, the family guinea pigs). But in more than a few places, I read that talking animal stories were old hat, not the “in” thing. Don’t write about that. The thing to write about now was something that was not my thing. Not my experience. Not me.

Write what you know.

What did I know? I was a mom. I had guinea pigs. I lived a pretty simple middle-class life. Agents and publishers did not want to hear about that stuff. But that’s what I knew. It was beginning to seem like an impossible, circular problem. I was ready to hang up my typewriter again. (By now it was a computer, though, not a real typewriter.)

Meanwhile, my daughter had entered the “chapter books” phase of life. Reading together every night was “our thing.” How wonderful that she always begged for just “one more chapter.” She had a fondness for animals, so animal stories were her favorite. We read everything. It soon became a necessary quest to find more material, especially stories about guinea pigs. There weren’t many.

I could write a story about guinea pigs. I knew I could. Maggie and Peanut gave me plenty of material every day, and I could imagine what was going on in their fuzzy little heads. I could make it funny and cute and….

But publishers didn’t want animal stories. Nobody would even look at my story. Nobody would publish it. It wouldn’t matter how good it was, how funny it was. I was unknown. I couldn’t get an agent as an unknown. I couldn’t get known without an agent.

Circular problems continued.

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Teddy & PIp’s holiday adventures put the Merry in Christmas and the Happy in Halloween. (Books 2 & 5) Available on Amazon.

I decided to write the story anyway. I wrote it, not for the “market,” not for an agent or a publisher, but for Allison. My goal: to have a copy of my book in the elementary school library. And wouldn’t it be cool if some of her friends read it too and thought it was funny?

When the story was done, I began research on self-publishing. And I admit that it felt like a sellout, or like it wasn’t really “getting published.” I was not going to get a call from my editor, arguing with me about words. I was going to be the editor. I was going to design the cover and do the back cover text and everything. Gulp. My husband thought it was a nice hobby and a neat-o thing for me to end up with that book to show off to family and friends. I wished it was going to be more than that, but alas.

The day the book was in my hands, I went right to the school library. Sandy, the librarian, gave me a hug and congratulated me. She also agreed to write the lovely review that you can still see on Amazon. I was invited to talk to the fifth-graders in the coming weeks about the book. I sold some copies off of my Web site to family and friends, then I ordered another box of books for just in case. It was so exciting! In the meantime, I started up book two (Bridezilla) as a Christmas present for Allison. The characters had become real to me and had more to say. They wanted their story to continue.

A local book club found me. They had read A Tale of Two Guinea Pigs and honored me as a guest at their meeting. Wow. With that “celebrity” evening, I had honestly surpassed my goals.

But that was not the end of the story. What I hadn’t counted on was how the book caught on. Not from anything I did—because I didn’t do much—but through the internet and its massive reach. The secret of my success?  The guinea pig people found me (a.k.a. I found a niche).

No, Teddy and Pip have not exactly become an industry. There isn’t a movie in the making, no publisher has come forth and offered to take me on, and I don’t make enough money to quit my day job (though I do make money now, so we’re going in the right direction).

I have found more success than I dared to hope for, and I am grateful. I get letters from kids who are reading my book as a class. I answer questions about how I deal with paparazzi (yes, they ask about that for real! Tee hee!) and if I would consider writing about different animals—like a komodo dragon, for example. I have requests from kids (and grown-ups, too) to join the Best Friends Club on my Web site. Kids love Teddy and Pip! They quote Pip back at me in their notes and letters. When my sales go noticeably up during December, I get to picture kids opening my book on Christmas morning. I love it all! What a blessing. Best of times!

There are now five Teddy and Pip books. My daughter, now 17, continues to be my biggest fan. She has grown into a self-professed grammar freak (lucky me!) and also has become my story consultant, copy editor, and all-things-technology assistant (including webmaster and cover designer).

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Something is going on in the background of Lucy’s Minnesota life—something that is making it all come apart piece by piece no matter how many times she hits Ctrl-Alt-Delete. Grab a tissue, dive in, and buckle up for the roller-coaster ride that awaits you in Silver Linings.

Finally (lest anyone think I am only wall-to-wall guinea pigs), I have also been working for a long time on a YA (young adult) series starring sixteen-year-old Lucy Mackensie, which I have titled Silver Linings. My goal in writing this story was to offer something different from what I perceive as lots of dark and gloomy apocalyptic story options for girls twelve and up. There is a lot going on in the story, and I don’t want to give anything away—which makes it tough to do promotional stuff or to find a niche! I’ll say that it’s a story about people—relationships, friendships, a first love, and beyond. It is my hope that the ending will surprise, the middle will intrigue and provoke thoughts, and the beginning will draw you in, make you love the characters, and want to keep turning pages. It is my hope that the guinea pig people might follow me into that series, once they feel ready for something a bit more. I did sneak a couple guinea pigs into the story in a cameo appearance. I am revising and then re-releasing book one (hopefully) this summer.