Weekend Update: Holiday Season!

This time of year is my favorite time of year! You get two major holidays within a month of each other, and that means lots of food, time with family, and time away from work.

I had a great time with my family this past week. We ate tons of good food (including some not-so-good food like late night Taco Bell and some rum and Cokes) and played a lot of games. I once again hold the UNO crown in my family, and I hope to retain it for a very long time.

And now we’ve got Christmas coming up! I put the lights up on the roof about a month ago while the weather was still mild, but now that Thanksgiving is over I can actually plug them in without feeling weird about it! The kids helped get all the inside decorations up, and they had a blast with that.

How was your Thanksgiving weekend? I hope you had some great times with your loved ones!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a short note today to acknowledge the holiday. I hope you all have a day full of relaxation and time spent with family planned! I’ll be visiting my family and having dinner with them. We may also watch some football, as is tradition. The Chicago Bears are playing but their star quarterback Justin Fields is unfortunately injured so I can’t say it will be a fun game to watch.

And make sure you take a moment to give thanks for all the blessings you have in your life, no matter how small or few you may think them. I know that there are days when I feel like I don’t have much going for me, but after all the places I’ve been and the many sorrows I’ve seen, I know to be extremely grateful to merely be alive, healthy, and amongst family.

What’s in a Name?

Ask 100 different authors what the most difficult part of writing is and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Ask me that question, and I’ll tell you:

Picking a damn title.

I mean, the title is that first big impression; you can’t afford to blow it! It has to entice the reader, but not be over the top. It needs to convey some kind of feeling or message, but only in a few syllables. It must give the potential reader an idea of what they’re in for while still hiding something interesting behind the veil. That’s a lot of pressure.

His Name Was Zach, the title of my debut novel, was originally just a placeholder, the first thing I could think of. And honestly, I don’t even remember how exactly it came to me. But after the story was written and I returned to the title, I couldn’t think of anything more fitting. His Name Was Zach contained the name of the protagonist, gave a little clue about the tone of the story, but left something to be imagined.

If you’re a writer, and you’re struggling picking a title for your book, here’s some advice. First, start with a placeholder. Just as I did, whatever comes to mind first, jot that down and move on. Come back later and play with it a little, you might twist it just enough that it becomes workable.

Or maybe your placeholder doesn’t work out, that’s okay! At least now you know what you don’t want the title to be. As Thomas Edison famously said about his repeated failures: I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Second, and be careful with this one, but look to other books in your genre for ideas. I say be careful because you obviously don’t want to go plagiarizing. However, skimming some titles of other books in your genre can be a big help. You’ll see formats that inspire you, and titles that give you a clear indication of what not to do, as well.

Now, I know some of my readers are also authors, so I must ask you: how did you pick the title of your book? Share your titles in the comments below!

Critiquing Yourself

One thing I’ve always struggled with when it comes to writing is critiquing my own work. I’ve noticed that I tend to be an extremely harsh critic of the things I write, and that’s led to a few cases of extended writer’s block. Where I don’t write anything for days or even weeks because I’m stuck on a particular plot point or scene that I can’t seem to overcome.

It has to be perfect, I tell myself. If I can deduce any kind of plot hole, inconsistency, or even feel a sense of incredulity towards what I’m writing, I’ll scrap it.

I’ve written before and in some book reviews that I’m generally a very forgiving book reader or movie watcher when it comes to this. I was watching that new movie Red Notice on Netflix this weekend and caught myself thinking Well that’s obviously impossible but whatever on several occasions.

And I finally realized that I should offer my own works this same kind of leniency. Obviously I need to keep things tight, realistic, and believable, but I think the degree to which I do these things can be slackened up a bit. If people are enjoying my stories, they’re probably gonna be okay with a bit of action or an event that would be unlikely in the real world.

Hopefully that can help fuel a surge to the end of my current work-in-progress, Creed: Solomon’s Fortune. I’ve been having a hard time with the plot on this one and I think part of the problem has been critiquing my ideas too harshly. I’m at 32,000 words but want to get to at least 70,000 before I call it a completed story.

Sneak Peek: Czarina Barinov

Over the weekend I added a prologue to my work-in-progress, a short two-page introduction of the main antagonist. I ended up liking it so much that I had to share with y’all right away, and I think you’ll like it too! She’s quickly becoming my favorite antagonist that I’ve ever written, and I’m really enjoying the cat-and-mouse games she plays with our hero, Conner Creed.

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. I thrive on feedback from my readers, and I’ve taken many of your suggested edits before!

Czarina Barinov waited just outside the Executive Suite of Bogatyr Tower, the corporate headquarters of Russia’s premier weapons manufacturer, Bogatyr Industries. She inspected her crimson lipstick one more time using the front-facing camera of her iPhone. Perfectly applied, not even the smallest trace of a smudge off her lips. The color, chosen purposefully to maximize her aura of unquestioned authority, made her venomous green eyes glisten in an unnerving way. Yes, she was ready.

“Ms. Barinov? The board is ready to see you,” the young woman at the desk said.

“Thank you, Anastasia,” Czarina replied. She stood up from the plush leather couch and smoothed out her black, knee-length dress. Some women opted for pants and a suit jacket when they wanted to intimidate men in a man’s world, but not Czarina. She viewed that as a sign of weakness, dressing like a man in order to feel powerful and confident. She didn’t need any help with feeling powerful and confident; she was those things. And so she wore dresses, heels, and jewelry, things that flaunted her femininity instead of masking it.

When she imposed her will on the men in that room, she would do so as an unabashed, unapologetic woman.

Anastasia opened the door to the suite and ten men in pinstripe suits sitting around a dark walnut table all rose from their chairs. “Czarina, my darling,” the man nearest the door said. He clasped her hands in his as they kissed each other on each cheek. “I hope you are taking the loss of your father better than I am.”

“Thank you, Uncle Sergei. I think I’m finally pulling through,” she replied.

“Please, have a seat in your father’s chair. We don’t wish to take much of your time. I know these kinds of meetings can be incredibly boring, especially for someone who has no real interest in all this.”

Czarina walked to the head of the table, fixing the men on the other side with a darting glance, one by one. When she reached the stately chair that once belonged to her father, she turned to the other side of the table and deliberately set her eyes on the other five men. She turned around and looked at the corporate logo of Bogatyr Industries on the wall behind her.

“Aleksandr Gerasimov helped your father design that logo,” Sergei said. “He was always very proud of that.”

“So I’ve been told,” Czarina replied. She sat down in the chair and the ten men in the room did the same.

Sergei folded his hands and said, “Let’s get right down to business. I know how much you love your current lifestyle, Czarina. And who wouldn’t? You travel around the world sightseeing, doing your little treasure hunts. I actually envy you. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why Vlad left his controlling share of Bogatyr Industries to you when you’ve clearly never shown an interest in it.”

“Perhaps he had hoped I would, my poor father,” Czarina replied, silently amused that no one, not even her uncle, had ever realized just how much she had paid attention to her father’s business growing up.

“Perhaps, but we cannot force our children to be copies of ourselves. He could have simply left you a large sum of money if he wanted you to be taken care of after his passing, but we’re getting off track. The point is, this clearly is not for you. The board and I are willing to buy out your father’s share, and at a generous rate as well. We’ll handle your father’s company, his legacy, and you’ll never have to worry about this big, boring business again.”

Sergei took a sealed envelope from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table to Czarina. “I think you’ll like this figure.”

Czarina took the envelope and opened it, withdrew the expensive-looking paper, and read the short paragraph there. Condolences, a brief explanation of her father’s controlling share, and then a ruble sign with a one followed by several zeroes. I like this figure a lot, she thought. From what she knew of the company’s finances and projections, this was more than fair. Czarina set the paper down and looked up at the men around her, each wearing such a phony, expectant smile.

These vultures in suits had probably been popping champagne in this very room on the day of her father’s death. They hated how he kept a controlling share to the day he died, well past the time his doctors suggested he retire. They hated him, and that hatred now fell on Czarina, an attractive and strong-willed woman, the daughter of Vlad Barinov, and worst of all the owner of a controlling share of Bogatyr Industries.

Yes, they hated everything about her, and they thought that faux sympathies and a handful of cash would be enough to get rid of her.

I’ll not give them the satisfaction.

“I want to thank you all so much for this offer,” Czarina said, smiling sweetly as she stood up again.

“Well, we wanted to make sure that Vlad’s little girl would be taken care of,” one of the men said, making a condescending gesture towards Czarina.

Czarina fixed that man with a hard gaze for just a moment, then smiled again and said, “Thank you, Joseph.” She walked towards the door, set her hand on the handle, and paused, savoring the moment before she dropped a bomb on the room. “And I’ll see you all here at 9 o’clock next Monday.”

The men all flinched in their seats as if they’d been stabbed.

“Czarina, you seem to be confused,” Sergei said, “you don’t have to come to any more meetings. We’ll wire the money straight to your account for you.”

“No, Uncle. You’re the one confused, it’s plain on your face. I do not accept your offer of a buy-out. I intend to run this business and that is why I expect a full report from each of you Monday morning.”

Each man rose from his seat and began to speak at once. Sergei and a couple others attempted to maintain the façade of kindness and empathy, but the others now made their loyalties clear as they lambasted Czarina. Joseph seemed particularly outraged as the gestures he made now went from condescending to threatening.

Czarina relished this anger, the kind of anger one feels when something precious to them is taken away and out of reach. She knew that anger well, and though she hated feeling it herself Czarina loved to inflict it on others.

“Silence!” she barked, her voice cutting through the cacophony. Shocked by her outburst, the men all suddenly stopped talking.

“Monday. 9 o’clock,” Czarina repeated. She opened the door then and left.

“Is everything alright?” Anastasia asked as Czarina walked past her desk.

“Everything is great,” Czarina replied. “I’m your boss now, you answer to me.”

“Oh. Yes, ma’am.”

“You were my father’s personal assistant. Tell me, do you know this business well?”

Anastasia hesitated, then said, “I’ve been here for seven years, I would say I have a pretty good idea of what goes on.”

“And how often do those men in there harass you?” Czarina asked.

“Oh, never.”

Czarina lifted one eyebrow.

Anastasia licked her lips and whispered, “Frequently.”

“Not anymore. You’re a board member now. Please inform Joseph he’s been retired, then get right to work on hiring your replacement.”

“Ms. Barinov, I don’t–but I don’t know…Ms. Barinov!” Anastasia stuttered, but Czarina was already gone.

Spend My Time

On Friday, a colleague at work offered me a pair of tickets to the Bears game yesterday. He’s got season tickets and he couldn’t go to this one.

If you don’t know, I’m a big time Chicago Bears fan, especially since they drafted quarterback Justin Fields. I really wanted to go to this game because it felt like Fields would have an outstanding game (spoiler alert: he played really well!)

Well, I turned the offer down. With travel time and fighting football traffic, I would probably have not been home until late. And yesterday was Halloween, which means I would have missed trick-or-treating with the kids.

Folks, you hear it so much it’s almost a cliché but it’s true: time is the one thing you can never get more of.

I would have loved going to the game, I would have had a blast. But there’s always going to be more Bears games, and each Halloween missed with the kids is one I’ll never get back. It’s one less before suddenly they’d rather spend Halloween with their friends instead of their lame parents. One less time I’d get to see them get all dressed up and excited for some candy.

I’m reminded of this Clint Black song and this lyric: no matter how much time I buy, I can never spend it all.

I had a great time going out with the kids, seeing the joy on their faces with each new handful of candy, all dressed up in their favorite costumes, staying up late and eating a little candy. Those are memories I wouldn’t trade for 100 Bears games.

Spend your time wisely, prioritize the important things, because you never know how much time is left to you.

How to Protect Your Work

First off: I’m not a lawyer. Let’s just get that cleared up!

If there’s one thing most new self-published authors fear, it’s having their work stolen! What if they send it off to an agent or beta reader, and that person just goes ahead and publishes it under their name and it sells millions of copies in dozens of languages???

Spoiler alert: that won’t happen.

If you’re a brand new author and have no other claim to fame, nobody is going to steal your work. Why? Because people only steal things that are valuable, things that could make them money. And no thief is going to take the time and effort to nab an unknown’s manuscript (which may not even be any good) and pray it makes a couple bucks on a piracy website.

But maybe you would like your work copyrighted all the same. Just in case. Well, you’re in luck! The moment your work is created in any tangible form, whether that be a loose-leaf binder or a Word file saved on your laptop, that work is copyrighted to you. You can check out this article for more information on that.

Here’s the caveat on that: if you haven’t filed with the US government (or your nation’s government) and sent them a copy of your work to hold a copyright in their library, trying to sue someone for damages will be harder than if the only copyright you have is the fact that it’s saved on your hardrive.

But there’s a caveat to that caveat: that is again an unlikely scenario. If on the incredible off-chance someone steals your work, it’s even more unlikely that they’d actually turn a profit, especially not enough that would make litigation worth it in the end.

So what have we learned today? Sleep at peace! Your work is copyrighted the moment you put pen to paper. You can file with the government if you like (it’s relatively easy and cheap), but it’s unlikely to ever pay off. Thievery of first-time indie authors’ work is rare, and even more rare would the profit from their theft be worth trying to take in court. Hell, you’d be more likely to die on the drive to the courthouse than to have your work stolen.

Stephen King needs copyright protection. You and I don’t.

Weekend Update: Pumpkins!

We did some pumpkin carving at the Martuneac household yesterday! The kids picked some classic designs for theirs, a spooky ghost and cat, the wife chose Disney castle, and I made a valiant attempt at the Chicago Bears ‘C’ logo.

Halloween isn’t my favorite holiday, but the kids love it and that makes the related activities fun. Next weekend we’ll be doing trick-or-treating, my favorite part of the holiday. That’s the part when the kids get a bunch of candy and I get to teach them how ‘income taxes’ work!

In writing news, still no bites from any agents or publishers on my Creed series, though I did get one rejection. If I don’t hear anything by December I’m going to plan on self-publishing Mandate From Heaven in February. I heard that a movie based on the Uncharted video games is coming out that month, so it’s my hope that ‘lost treasure’ stories will be in high demand!

And I just passed 26,000 words on the next the book in the series, so that’s coming along nicely. I actually love the villain in this one, Czarina Barinov. She might be my favorite villain that I’ve ever written!

That wraps it up for this week’s update, I’m really excited for you all to read Creed someday soon hopefully!

Should You Use Real Presidents in Fictional Worlds?

The office of the President of the United States is arguably the most powerful, influential position in the world at this time in history. That makes whoever holds that office a pretty easy target for the authors of fiction.

But should you pluck this low-hanging fruit?

Last year, I read a dystopian book in which a fictitious US President with bad hair, a dislike for immigrants, and a narcissistic personality turns into an insane dictator. Gee…that sounds awfully like a caricature of a recent president, wouldn’t you say?

Now the book was good, and I enjoyed the story. Which is more than I can say for a book I read eight years ago that featured a fictitious black president whose message of hope and change was a false promise, and he instead installed an Islamic dictatorship. Hm, I wonder if people have accused a real president of such intentions about the time that book was written?

In case you couldn’t tell, I am sick to death of book villains being not-so-subtle caricatures of the current President.

For one, it’s just lazy. At least in my opinion. As I said above, being the most influential person in the entire world makes this an easy target. Too easy. It’s so easy it’s almost like a form of plagiarism, the greatest sin in the writing world.

You’re creating your own world, your own universe. Just create your own dastardly president, too.

And for another thing, it’s never as subtle as you think it is. You may not even want it to be subtle, but if there’s one thing I can’t stand in fiction it’s ham-fisted messages beating me about the head. No one says you can’t include a social commentary in your books. But please, don’t insult our intelligence by bludgeoning us with the commentary.

So should you use whoever’s backside currently sits in the Oval Office as the villain in your book? Well, I can’t tell you what to do. But I’d advise authors to avoid this road. It’s just predictable. There’s a tyrannical president in Her Name Was Abby, and I can assure you he is not based on the current president or any president still living. There’s no politics at all in my books; I didn’t want a political message to override my intended messages about PTSD and the ways people cope with trauma.

What do you think? Do you use real presidents, or enjoy seeing them in the books you read? Let me know in the comments!

How to Write a Good Fight Scene

I’ve never thought of myself as particularly good at writing one kind of scene versus another, but one thing I’ve been told consistently by readers and reviewers is that they really enjoy my fight scenes.

So I guess I’m pretty good at writing fight scenes. With that in mind, today I’ll be sharing some advice since I know some writers struggle in this area. Specifically, I’ll be talking about hand-to-hand type fight scenes (combat scenes involving guns or soldiers is something else entirely, maybe for a future blog post)

#1 – Keep the sentences and paragraphs short. This is probably the most important point. It’s a fight. Things are happening quickly, fists are flying, bones are breaking. Shorty, choppy sentences give this impression wonderfully. Long, flowery sentences are nice when there’s not much action happening, but in a fight they slow the pacing. It doesn’t feel like a fight. Watch:

“Bob threw a left hook then a right. Bill stepped back, dodging both. Bob kept coming, still striking and backing Bill into a corner. Sensing victory he unleashed a flurry of punches, but Bill knew what he was doing. He suddenly caught Bob’s arm, stepped into him, and drove his knee into Bob’s groin.”

“Bob threw a fast jab with his left hand, followed by a powerful right hook as he closed the distance with Bill, who kept stepping back in an attempt to dodge the blows. Bob continued moving towards Bill as he threw more jabs, hooks, and even a roundhouse kick, trying to knock Bill’s lights out, and eventually he backed Bill into a corner. This was the moment Bob had been waiting for, the chance to trap Bill and prevent him from escaping….”

You get the idea. Now which of the above paragraphs carries sense of quick action? I couldn’t even finish writing the second paragraph, it was taking so long!

Also, unless the fight is pivotal to the plot, keep it short. A few paragraphs, a page maybe should be the longest a fight scene should last if it’s not vital to the plot, if you even include it at all.

#2 – Remember the environment. Unless you’re writing a Rocky Balboa fanfic, your characters are probably not fighting in a boxing ring. They’re in a bar, on a street corner, a school cafeteria. So use the environment! By this I mean have the characters trip over something, grab a weapon of opportunity, slam their opponent into a mail box or through a window.

It’s very easy to write a fight scene like they’re in an empty, white expanse, but that makes for dull reading. Use the environment. Make the environment effect the fight!

#3 – Get the details just right. And I don’t mean by that to have precise details of every punch. I mean you have to give just enough details to paint a picture while allowing some vagueness to keep the pacing going.

Hearkening back to the first point, it’s a fight. It’s chaotic and messy, so trying to give exacting details over every step and every strike slows the whole thing down. But you can’t just write “they slapped each other silly” either, because then the reader doesn’t have a proper sense of what’s going on.

When I write fight scenes, I do what I call pulsing the details. I’ll start with a good amount of detail about the opening strikes of a fight, then fall down to some generic descriptions like “a flurry of strikes”. Then the pulse of the fight will spike again as I describe the character grabbing a chair and smacking their opponent with it, then fall back to generic descriptions. Another pulse up as I describe how the character fell into the other’s guard and was now trapped in an arm bar.

Note that this is for a longer, plot-pivotal fight. As I said earlier, if it’s not a major fight that helps character development or is the climax of tensions between two main characters, you probably don’t need to worry about pulsing the details because the fight should be short.

#4 – Experience. As with any other part of writing, having experienced something goes a long way in writing about it well. You don’t have to have experienced a fight or combat to write about it, but it helps. And if you haven’t, ask people who have. I’ve helped both friends and total strangers write about military life because they asked.

So how does that tie into a fight scene specifically? If you’ve been in a fight or taking martial arts training you know that you have more body parts than your fists. You can kick, you can strike with your knees and elbows. There are hammerfists and headbutts. There’s grappling on the ground, where there’s guards, half-mounts, and arm bars. Use these! Don’t just have your characters move in a circle throwing an endless series of punches. Get creative!

#5 – Dialogue and emotions. Again, this advice is for longer fights that are important plot points, but dont’ forget about emotions! Your characters will be angry, scared, confident, distracted, etc. Take a moment here and there to reflect that in the fight. Show Bob grin as he lands several strikes in a row. Show Bill’s eyes widen as he realizes he can’t win.

And then there’s dialogue. This depends a lot on each individual fight scene, but don’t forget about it entirely. If the characters know and hate each other, there’ll probably be some trash talking. If it’s a group fight, two friends will probably be shouting warnings to each others.

Don’t abandon dialogue but also keep it clipped. Just like your sentences should be short, so should anything the characters say. I’ve read fight scenes where characters are practically orating a campaign speech and it felt completely wrong. This is another spot where experience helps, a person who’s been in a fight knows there isn’t a whole lot of talking.

So there you have it! What do you think of the advice? Anything you would add or detract? Let me know in the comments!

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