The Ghost, the Witch, and the Pinot

Welcome to the first in a weekly series of reviews of horror related movies, television, and… wine.  Why wine?  What does wine have to do with it?  The answer is: why not?  Wine makes everything better.

(Enter a Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “GET ON WITH IT!!”)

OKAY!  But, quickly, how I came about this endeavor was over a cup of coffee.  My mug was almost looking into my soul and told me to do a blog called “Ghost Night Review.”  For years my lovely wife has allowed me to indulge my lifelong love of the macabre by designating Saturdays as “Ghost Night.” It was a tradition that started in Germany where we had no cable so I ordered some seasons of the SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters. From there I started recording and religiously watching the Travel Channel’s Dead Files when we got back to the States, watching it every Saturday night. After binge watching for so long, you have to branch out, so I threw the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures into the mix and eventually added a movie as well. And there is almost always a bottle of wine.

So there.


For warm up I went to my “go to” show these days: the Travel Channel’s Dead Files.  If you haven’t seen this show, the premise is you have a physical medium named Amy Allan and retired NYPD homicide detective named Steve DiSchiavi who team up to investigate hauntings.  There’s the catch: they work independently of each other, never communicating until the reveal at the end.  Steve interviews witnesses and researches the history while Amy does a “walk through” of the property, all the while getting impressions and communicating with the dead.  My favorite part is when she sits down with a sketch artist to get a rendition of what she saw, and sometimes Steve will have photos from past owners, etc, that match almost identically to those sketches.  And then Amy discusses how to deal with the dead she came across.  Awesome show.

We watched “Guardians of the Dead” from Season 5 (episode 1), where Steve and Amy travel to a 300-year-old sugar cane plantation turned museum in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  This was unique for them because they have never left the US for an investigation.  For those of us who are regulars of the ghost show circuit, you will recognize Rose Hall from Ghost Hunters International (episode 2.13) and Ghost Adventures (episode 5.9).  The history of the place is great and the legend of Annie Palmer (a legend that the entire island believes in) is even better.  Of course Steve discovers that the legend of Annie Palmer is almost complete fable, but what do you do.  There was a part that got me thinking about all of the fear and belief the legend of Annie Palmer has generated over the decades, and what that psychic energy would create.  In an interview, a witness said that when their Annie (an actor) is engaging with tourists, a faceless apparition is scene nearby mimicking the actor’s every move.  Perhaps an entity is being created by the people, bringing what they believe to be Annie Palmer to life.

Wonderful episode.


I had been looking forward to The Witch for months, having missed it in theaters.  The Witch follows a Puritan family that has been exiled from community because the father is a little too zealous, and they build a home for themselves in a clearing in the wilderness.  Unbeknownst to them that a witch lives in the woods.  The trailers were spectacular, but, sadly, they showed all of the good parts.  The Witch was very well done from an artistic point of view, so if you are into the period and want a true to form Puritanical scary story, this might be the one for you.

Personally, I started losing interest about a third of the way in.

As a side note: I don’t recommend eating salsa or, in my case, a tomato bruschetta around minute 10 – immediately after the baby is stolen by the witch (the peek-a-boo scene from the trailer).


To go with our aforementioned bruschetta, we had a tomato/mozzarella/basil salad and garlic rubbed French bread, which calls for a medium red wine.  I am always looking for a reason to drink a dry, spicy red, but you really should match your wine to the meal, so we chase a Pinot Noir.  The 2014 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (Sonoma County) by River Road Vineyards was a great compliment to the acidity of the tomatoes and creamy mozzarella.  I usually like my wines bolder, but the fruit-forward flavors of grape and cherry were refreshing, leading to a smooth finish of anise and molasses on the back end.  It certainly wasn’t my all-time favorite Pinot, but it was right for the meal.


Happy Halloween


“Talk about your Twilight Zone,” said Jim to his wife, Erin, as they drove home to the two story farm house they’d just bought on the edge of town.

“I know. I can’t believe they’re already advertising Christmas stuff,” said Erin, thumbing through Halloween recipes.

“What? No, I mean, doesn’t it seem like these people take Halloween a little too seriously?”

Erin looked down both sides of the street. Yards littered with Styrofoam headstones and fake cobwebs stretched as far as the eye can see. “So they dig the holidays,” she said, going back to a recipe on making cupcakes that look like Frankenstein’s Monster. “And need I remind you that you’re the one who insisted on getting that “small town” feel.”

“Ok, well, have you seen any children?”

“It’s only 2:30. School probably doesn’t let out for another hour.”

Jim shrugged. “You’re right. Moving out here was supposed to be relaxing.”

She didn’t look up from the magazine, “Unless Ma and Pa Kettle are out to get us.”


“I’m just saying,” said Erin, not looking up, but grinning.

“Maybe we should get a pumpkin,” said Erin, getting out of the car. A cold gust of wind cut through her sweatshirt. The tall stalks of corn in the field across the road rustled and swayed.

“There’re dumber ideas you could have,” called out the old man who lived in the neighboring house South of theirs. Limping their way, his overalls were covered in pumpkin guts and he had a 10-inch carving knife in one hand, a half-sculpted pumpkin in the other. There was a wad of tobacco between his gums and unshaven cheek.

The only time they’d seen him before was when he was installing bars on his windows shortly after they moved in.

“Excuse me,” said Erin.

“Howdy neighbor,” said Jim out loud.

“Are you a cowboy now,” whispered Erin.

Jim gave her a quick look then turned back to their neighbor. “Hi. Name’s Jim Reese.”

Their neighbor looked him up and down and spit tobacco on the driveway. They could smell whiskey on him before he even said a word.

“Yeah. I know your name.” He slid the knife into his front pocket, and extended his sticky hand for shaking. “Matt Brown. Call me Brownie, everyone does.”

Jim looked at Brownie’s hand, “I don’t mean to be rude, but there’s stuff on your hand.”

Brownie wiped his hand on his overalls. “Not scared of a little pumpkin, are ya? Cause if that scares ya, you’re in for a rough night.”

“What do you mean by that,” asked Erin.

Brownie spit again and nodded toward the field. “I’m not supposed to be telling you this, but they’ll be coming from old Malachi Field over there.”

The wind blew through the rows, shaking the heavy, green leaves.

“Who will be,” asked Jim.

Brownie laughed. “Children.”

Jim and Erin laughed with him, and then Brownie stopped laughing.

“Must have been about 30 years now since that fire,” said Brownie. “Oh, that’s right, you two just moved here.” He spit off to the side. “That field,” he nodded to it again, “used to be the site of the Malachi Grade School named after Mayor Malachi, who donated most of the money to build it. But, old Malachi was greedy, had the school burned down to collect the insurance on it.”

“That’s terrible,” said Erin.

“No,” said Brownie. “What’s terrible is that Mayor Malachi didn’t know it, or maybe he did, that the school had a Halloween costume dance that night. There weren’t a whole lot of survivors.

“After word got out about the mayor being involved, the town went bankrupt from lawsuits. Mayor Malachi disappeared before he could be indicted. Most folks moved away, especially when they consolidated the grade schools in Gatlin down the road.”

“Why didn’t they just rebuild the school,” asked Jim.

Brownie spit. “Would you send your kids to a school that burned down and took a generation of kids with it? Nope, the town just tore up what was left and sold off the land to a seed corn development company.”

“There must be some pretty brave kids around here to cut through the field just for candy after a story like that,” said Erin.

“Children don’t cut through there, no live ones anyhow,” said Brownie. “My guess is they’re just trying to get the Halloween they never got in 1983.”

Jim nervously laughed. “That was an awesome story, man, but we have to get inside.”

“Son,” said Brownie, “Ain’t no story. I’ve been watching the exact same kids in the exact same costumes walk these streets every Halloween for 30 years. If you want some neighborly advice, you’ll get yourself a jack o’ lantern for protection. You don’t want to wind up like Burt and Vicky.”

“Who’s Burt and Vicky,” asked Erin as a late 1970s, white Lincoln Continental slowly drove by. The elderly couple inside smiled and waved.

Brownie cleared his throat, his eyes set on the car. “Pay heed to my advice,” was all he said as he hurried back to his house, dropping the jack o’ lantern on his porch and slamming the door behind him.

Jim found himself looking out the window at the field throughout the afternoon, thinking about Brownie’s story.

“Say what you want, but we have got to have the weirdest neighbors on Earth,” said Erin, navigating around unpacked moving boxes to get to the apple slices and caramel.

Jim shook his head in agreement, “You will get no argument from me on that.”

“And the Wi-Fi out here sucks,” she said, banging her fingertips on the keyboard of her laptop. “I’ve been trying to Google anything about a school burning down for two hours. Have I mentioned that the Wi-Fi out here sucks?”

“Maybe lost souls are blocking it,” said Jim, dodging a pillow.

The doorbell rang, making them both jump.

Jim opened the door to find the elderly couple from the Lincoln Continental standing on their porch. The old woman smiled from under her bonnet. The old man, wearing a powder blue leisure suit said, “Good evening, neighbor.”

Jim looked over his shoulder, but Erin was nowhere to be seen.

“Do you have any children,” asked the old woman.

“Excuse me,” asked Jim.

The old man smiled widely, his too-white dentures glistening, “It’s Halloween. Got any kids?”

“Uh, no, we don’t,” Jim said, looking around for his wife.

“Oh, now that’s a shame,” said the old woman. “It seems the only time we get any children out here is at Halloween. So the whole town goes a little overboard,” she said. “But, it keeps the kids coming back.”

Jim raised an eyebrow, “Sorry, I’m…”

“James Reese,” interjected the old man, shaking his hand. “It’s a small town, and you’re the talk of it, my boy. We haven’t had any young folks move here for as long as I can remember. Names Hank Fowler and this is my wife, Patty.”

“I really do hate this town,” said Erin as she came out of the kitchen, still looking for a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Patty pursed her lips at Erin.

“Honey, this is Hank and Patty Fowler,” said Jim.

“We’re your neighbors on the North side,” said Hank. “We’ve been meaning to formally introduce ourselves, but Patty insisted on making her famous blueberry cobbler for you first.” Patty beamed with pride and lifted a decorative towel from the cobbler. “She won a blue ribbon for it in the county fair a few years back.”

Patty handed Erin the cobbler and a couple sacks of candy to hand out. The smell of blueberries and brown sugar filled the entry way.

“Thanks, and it’s nice meeting you both,” said Jim. “We met Brownie earlier.”

Both of the Fowlers dropped their smiles for a second. “He’s an interesting one, isn’t he,” said Hank.

“You can say that again,” said Erin, hovering over the cobbler.

“Yeah,” said Jim. “He told us a story about the Malachi Grade School that used to be where that field is now.”

Hank laughed, Patty did not. “Did he now? And I suppose he gave you some cockamamie story of ghost children and curses.”

Jim and Erin looked at each other.

“The truth is there was a school that burned down so the mayor could get the insurance money, and the town did go bankrupt,” said Hank.

“So there are no children that come out of the field every Halloween,” asked Erin.

“Oh, there are,” said Hank. “The town of Isaacson is either four miles away by road or a little less than a mile by foot if you cut through that field. Like Patty said, we make it worth their while.”

“Then we may have to get some more candy,” said Jim.

“Who are Buck and Vicky,” asked Erin. “Brownie mentioned them.”

The Fowlers stopped smiling. “Brownie says a lot of things,” said Hank. “They lived here before you. Nice people. Brownie likes to say they were scared off or whatnot by ghosts and ghouls.” He cleared his throat again. “But, we’ll leave the two of you to your last minute decorating.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure we’ll decorate this year. It’s getting late and we’re still unpacking,” said Erin.

Patty grabbed Erin’s hand and looked her in the eyes, “At least get a pumpkin.”

“Come along dear,” said Hank, taking Patty by the shoulders. “It was nice meeting the two of you.”

As the Fowlers walked back to their home and the sun began to set, Erin reiterated that they had the weirdest neighbors ever. The full moon rose over the corn, and cast shadows through the autumn trees. A fog rolled out from the Malachi Field to the road.

“Man that’s creepy,” said Jim, looking out the window. “You’d think it’d be too cold for fog.”

“Probably ghost children,” said Erin, nose buried in a recipe for gingerbread men that look like mummies.

“Brat,” said Jim. “I just feel bad that we don’t even have a jack o’ lantern.”

“Go borrow Brownie’s,” said Erin. “He apparently hates kids anyway.”

“I’m not going to steal someone’s pumpkin on Halloween,” said Jim.

“Sissy,” said Erin, looking out the window. “His light’s not on and that half-assed jack o’ lantern is still where he dropped it this afternoon. He might not even be home.”

Jim sighed and headed out the door, a candle and matches in his pocket. He could see his breath in the chilly air. The fog was inching over road. Brownie’s house didn’t appear to have any lights on.

A rustling came from the field. The rows thrashed back and forth. Something was coming through.

Jim whistled softly as he nonchalantly strolled over to Brownie’s porch and snatched the hacked-up pumpkin. As he entered his own yard, there was a familiar smell coming from the fog. It was the smell of smoke. Jim stopped and looked over the field as hard as he could, but didn’t see the glow of any fire.

Black silhouettes of children emerged from Malachi Field. The moon illuminated their tattered costumes and the plastic candy buckets. They shambled to the road, eyes hidden by the shadows inside their masks. The smell of smoke intensified.

Jim’s heart rate quickened and he hurried to his house.

Fog rolled across the road and up to Brownie’s porch, followed by children marching to the old man’s door. They gathered on his porch and began pounding on the door. Jim could hear Brownie yell that he had a gun from inside his house.

Chants of “trick or treat” echoed from the costumed mob. The fog circled Brownie’s house as did children.

More kids staggered from the field, following the smoke headed toward Jim. He tripped over his porch stairs; the pumpkin fell from his hands and rolled away.

Giggling children walked slowly across his lawn, hands and candy buckets extended.

Jim scrambled to the pumpkin and flipped the matchbox out of his pocket. Matchsticks scattered across the porch.

A group of slow moving children approached from the fog. Their faces didn’t appear to move, but a distant “trick or treat” echoed from them.

His back against the wall, Jim broke several matches with his shaking hands. Finally, a couple struck and flared. Children stepped onto the porch, the smell of smoke burned Jim’s eyes. He burned his fingers lighting the candle, and jammed it into the pumpkin, which he held in front of him like a shield. The fog began to recede from the porch.

The door opened beside him.

“No, Erin, run,” Jim shouted.

“Trick or treat,” said the group of kids in unison.

“Seriously,” said Erin, looking down at him. One by one, she dropped candy into the buckets.

Having gotten their candy, the kids ran and jumped off the porch, but one of them stopped and flipped up his plastic mask. The boy didn’t look like a ghost or zombie or anything Jim expected.

“Thanks, mister,” said the boy who ran to join his friends on the road.

Erin laughed at Jim, who was still huddled against the wall with his pumpkin shield, and closed the door behind her as she went back in the house.

Embarrassed, Jim got to his feet and set the jack o’ lantern on the steps. He shook his head and looked back at the trick-or-treaters. They stood in the road, staring at him. And just when he was about to say how creepy they were, they all disappeared in a cloud of smoke before his eyes.

Happy Halloween

I Dream of Editors

I had a dream last night about editors, or, more accurately, the editing process. I know what you are thinking, and yes, I am just that big of a writing nerd that I dream about writing like a zoo keeper dreams about animals, or a pilot dreams about clouds, or a cupcake designer dreams about fat kids.

To back up a step, I spent a good portion of yesterday going over the recommended changes to a short story I submitted to an anthology that were e-mailed to me by the third editor I’ve worked with on this endeavor. Then I spent a good portion of time lamenting over dramatic changes to a novel I’d written in an effort to make it more marketable last night. So it kind of makes sense that I would dream about breaking my arm, then having that same arm re-broken and filed down into a new shape by a doctor so it could heal right, and then have another doctor do the same.

Don’t get me wrong, editors are absolutely vital to the process. Sure it feels like a stranger telling you your newborn child is ugly, but maybe they’re just pointing out the obvious fact that the poor kid’s eyes aren’t level. My point here is that we, as writers, put so much of ourselves into a project that we sometimes develop an unhealthy attachment. Of course your three-nostril-having baby is the most beautiful baby in the world, but it probably won’t be on the cover of a fashion magazine later in life without some cosmetic help.

I’ve had the privilege throughout my budding career of working with quite a few editors. Some were awesome (like Patrick LoBrutto, who is a fantastically talented and lovely man to work with), and some, well, not so much. The right editor can elevate your stories to new heights if you follow their guidance. Working with the wrong editor will be a waste of time, effort, and possibly money.

What you must realize when working with an editor is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Consider an editor as you would consider a contract killer: Anyone can be one, but you get what you pay for.


7 Deadly Sins


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I recently came across a wonderful essay on technical writing by Morris Freedman, who says that “technical writing calls for the same kind of attention and must be judged by the same standards as any other kind of writing; indeed, it calls for a greater attention and for higher standards.”

In other words, readers will be less likely to listen to what you have to say if your writing is without care and precision. It’s a fairly lengthy essay, so I’ll boil it down a bit.

There are seven, overlapping, sins that frequently occur in writing; these errors are seen in technical writing more than elsewhere, but can be applied to just about anything you are writing from fiction to stereo instructions. One should be aware, when proof reading that these errors occur in groups rather than on an individual basis.

The following list outlines the details of these Sins:

“Sin 1: Indifference.” This is the use of “shortcuts of expression, elliptical diction, sloppy organization, brining up points and letting them hang unresolved, improper or inadequate labeling of graphic material, and the like.” Through your apathy, you’ve shown the reader “an attitude of disrespect: Caveat lector – let the reader beware.” You can avoid this sin by taking the time to be clear and concise.

“Sin 2: Fuzziness.” Fuzziness of communication is the use of “vague words, meaningless words” or using the “wrong words” all together. “The reader uses his own experience to supply the meaning in such writing.” In order to avoid this sin: “use concrete, specific words and phrases whenever you can, and use only those words whose meaning you are sure of.”

“Sin 3: Emptiness.” This “is the use of jargon and big words, pretentious ones, where perfectly appropriate and acceptable small words are available.”

“Sin 4: Wordiness.” “Sin 4 is an extension of sin 3.” This is the use of “more words than necessary to do the job.” To avoid committing these sins, simply reverse the mechanism: say what you have to in the fewest and clearest words possible.

“Sin 5: Bad Habits.” This is “use of pat phrases, awkward expressions, confusing sentence structure, that have, unfortunately, become second nature.”

“Sin 6: Deadly Passive.” This is the use of the passive that “takes the life out of writing, making everything impersonal, eternal, remote and dead.” Writers will often use this sin as a way to make “their subject seem weightier, and their accomplishment more impressive.”

“Sin 7: Mechanical Errors.” This sin is “the easiest one to recognize, the easiest one to deal with quantitatively, so to speak, and the easiest one to resist. These are dangling participles and other types of poorly placed modifiers, and ambiguous references amongst others.

“The seven sins of technical writing are to be avoided not so much by a specific awareness of each, accompanied by specific penance for each, as by a more general awareness, by an attitude toward subject matter writing process, and reader that can be best described as respectful.” …The only aids depend on are… a good dictionary, …any of the several volumes by H. W. Fowler, and occasional essays, here and there.”

“Technical writing must be as rationally shaped as a technical object. …It is pointless for the design engineer to use three bolts where one would do. …Technical writing – informative writing of any sort—should be clean, as functional, as inevitable as any modern machine designed to do a job well.”


Lessons Learned: Day 3 of the WLT Agents and Editors Conference


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If you’ve been following in recent weeks, you already know the things I did to get ready for the Writer’s League of Texas (WLT) Agents and Editors Conference in Austin, TX. This week, I’ll wrap up my adventure and tell you how I ended it on a good note.

After an exceptionally good night, 8:00 came around way too soon. I got up and polished off any rough edges to make myself as presentable as possible. I harp on this a lot, but I think it’s important to say that if you want to be treated as a professional, you must present yourself as a professional. There was only one time that anyone would have caught me not wearing a nice tie, and even then I was dressed professionally. On the final day, it was black slacks, a grey shirt and purple tie. It’s the last thing they will remember about you.

I still didn’t have any appointments to speak with an agent or editor, but I found that I really didn’t need to as long as I was confident and could sum up my work in about 30 seconds. Again, it’s not rude to approach an agent or editor, but keep in mind that by this time, they have been approached by hundreds of writers pitching hundreds of ideas, so don’t expect to stand out unless you have something exceptional to sell.

If you have nothing better to do, go back and talk with the connections you’ve made. Say “hi” to that agent in the hall without mentioning your work, especially if one says to see them about a card because they’ve run out. Talk to that editor you were sitting next to during breakfast. Go hang out with the group of awesome writers you clicked with on day #1. From here you must realize that you’re headed back to the real world in a few hours, so make sure you can maintain connections.

The closing session was the Wild Pitch – a panel of editors, published authors, and agents who randomly pull written pitches and critique them. Mine did not get pulled.

Things I learned from this panel:

1) Be prepared to answer question that aren’t about the book. These people are interested in making money, and will want to know if you are a one hit wonder or a cash cow. They’ll want to know: Who do you emulate? What is your writing process? What sort of support structure do you have at home? And, most importantly, do you actually have time to write? These are NOT easy questions to answer if you’re not ready for them.

2) Promotion of your book should start up to two years before publication. Reach out to people in the field you are writing about to build your credibility. Get involved in anthologies and writing for magazines and newspapers.

3) Your pitches need to show that your story is unique, and you must convey that in 30 seconds or less. Generalities kill. One of the panelists became fixated on a detail of one pitch. The story itself he didn’t care for, but that one aspect, a minor aspect, he couldn’t stop raving about and wanted to go back to it over and over, ultimately telling the anonymous writer to see him after the panel. Which brings me to another important aspect: Be prepared to change your story for the sake of the market. This is a business, and I realize you are all as brilliant as I am, but it’s a business, we can make money or not.

I did, however, get into an argument with a writer sitting at my table. She asked probably the worst question you could at an Agents and Editors Conference, she asked why we needed them at all if she could just go and self publish. It’s a fair question, but not in the way she asked it. The panelists didn’t answer her question, be we had a conversation about it. I explained that subpar novels have flooded the market, making it more difficult than ever to get published traditionally, but the reason we needed “them” was because of their resources. Your average self published author doesn’t have the distribution capabilities, the marketing staff, or the clout to branch out to book sellers and international audiences. On a personal note, I want that recognition from industry professionals that I am a good writer; that I deserve to be published. She argued that some of the top selling authors are self published. True, but for every Suzanne Collins there are thousands of unsuccessful writers who couldn’t get published otherwise. She walked away.

Another moment of right place/right time: I was checking out of the hotel when I ran into Ken Sherman, Ken Sherman and Associates, from LA. I’d run into him several times in elevators, dinner, or just wandering the halls. A pretty nice guy. I asked him if I could give him my pitch about a new kind of monster, and he stopped me and told me to e-mail him. His brain was already saturated by pitches, so I was lucky.

Follow up.

I have gone about getting contacting everyone I talked to through social media. I also have bought high quality thank you cards for the industry professionals. This may sound like brown nosing, but I am honestly grateful for their time and see a thank you card as a postal handshake.

I hope you all learned something from this little epic, and keep reading!



Lessons Learned: Day 2 of the WLT Agents and Editors Conference


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If you’ve been following in recent weeks, you already know the things I did to get ready for the Writer’s League of Texas (WLT) Agents and Editors Conference in Austin, TX. This week, I’ll go over some of the things that went absolutely right, and while some of it was right place/right time, most of it could be duplicated.

Saturday, 22 June 2013: The official start of the conference. The purpose of this day was to have one-on-one meetings with agents and editors. If you recall, I was a late admission, so I couldn’t schedule any said meetings; I would have to find a way to find, stalk, and engage these agents and editors in a nonthreatening way. I’d already had some success the night before, so I was pretty confident.

The conference was set to start at 8:00 with submissions to the Wild Pitch box. I was still holding off because I wanted something polished, and I was up too late and had too many drinks to put a good product out (know your limitations – this is a business trip, not a vacation).

Things I had on my side: I was staying at the hotel the conference was being held at and I had my outfits staged (for day 2: blue button up shirt, tan slacks, gold tie). Again, dress the part. At breakfast I sat across from three writers in their early to mid twenties, all having an “I don’t care” hair cut and wearing plaid shirts – they hadn’t come together, just coincidence – and I’m just glad that someone at the table got it when I called them Larry, Darrell, and Darrell. I really don’t remember what any of them were writing, I just remember that they looked like a quarter of the hundreds of other writers there. I was dressed and presented myself in a professional manner well enough that I was asked a few times which panels I was sitting on.

By this time, I should have picked through the program and game planned the workshops I’d be attending, but I hadn’t, so I used the light breakfast time to make notes in my program and decide which workshops were going to benefit me. I chose: Market Trends; Writing for Teens and Tweens; How to Write a Love Scene that Doesn’t Make People Cringe; Writing Speculative Fiction; and Build Your Audience: Using Blogs and Twitter Effectively.

On the subject of breakfast, I am a complete caffeine addict. If I don’t get a couple cups of coffee in the morning, I am an irritable mess. BUT, I am also aware that coffee gives you fairly bad breath, and being that this is all about networking and meeting industry professionals, I was hell-bent on not having my impression on them be the guy with rank breath. No coffee or anything with onions, garlic, etc, passed my lips. Eventually I did have to have coffee, but I also ran to my room to brush my teeth after.

Market Trends: I learned that cultural anxieties not only sell, but endure. Romance is always trendy. Westerns are dead on the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble (yet agents seemed overly excited about Westerns). And consider backlash. Fads come and go, and if you want to ride that rollercoaster, counter the trends in your writing so you’ll be ahead of the game when the pendulum swings the other way.

I noticed that some of the agents were also tasked to sit on workshop panels, and that they hang out for a few minutes afterwards. This was my in. I found where one of my top two target agents (Becca Stumpf, an agent from Prospect Agency) was going to be and almost ran to where she was going to be.

I shook her hand and she asked if I had an appointment; I explained that they were sold out, but I wanted to meet her. She let me give her my pitch for the YA novel I’ve been working on and she seemed to love it, kept asking for more about it, and gave me her card and instructions to send the first 30 pages. SUCCESS!

NOTE: There is a difference between an agent asking for more about your story and asking you to explain what the hell you are talking about. If you have to explain, you are behind the curve; but at least they are interested enough to ask. Don’t badger the agent if they say it’s not for them; you will not convince them to take it.

From there I went to the Key Note Luncheon. DO THIS. What I leaned: Always write the best thing you can – content is king; investigate your publishing options – traditional verses self publishing; build and nurture your platform; keep moving forward; don’t put all of your eggs in one basket; you will not always write what you love for money; don’t believe everything you hear; editors are looking for reasons to say “no,” don’t give them any; recognize the value of your writing – maximize your ideas; put down the remote control and write the book.

Also, ask yourself if you can give up what you like to do what you love. You have to be committed or you will fail.

After lunch, I headed off to How to Write a Love Scene That Doesn’t Make People Cringe. Since I am writing YA at the moment, I figured this would be a worthwhile class. I didn’t expect a class on Erotica. In any case, what I learned was a sex scene needs to have a purpose for being there, not just filler. I had a good conversation with the instructor afterwards about how I wrote a graphic scene in my book ‘Immolate’ that was kind of disturbing, and how my dad gave the book to my grandmother to read.

NOTE: Your family WILL buy your books, and probably read them too.

I didn’t get much from the Speculative Writing workshop, aside from make your made-up worlds realistic.

In the last workshop, I learned: Promotion starts as early as two years before publication; start targeting your audience through social media ahead of time – write articles and get involved with anthologies of a related genre; and use social media to reach out to professionals in the areas you are writing about.

When you meet new people, especially in crowds, everyone gets excited and will make plans to hang out after the conference. This was no different for me, however, when it came to it; everyone else had better things to do, leaving me by myself in the lobby. So I struck up a conversation with one of the WLT volunteers.

This is when my big right place/right time moment happened.

The WLT President (Mick Normington) stopped as he was walking by and asked which agency I worked for or if I was an editor. I told him I was a writer attending the conference, and he invited me to the agents and editors private dinner down the street.

Luck favors the prepared.

You do not pass up opportunities like this. I got to make connections and socialize with industry professionals on a personal basis. I even got a very good idea for a historical fiction novel during a conversation with Molly Lindley, an editor from Simon and Schuster.

I did NOT talk about anything I was working on. My goal was to blend in, not point out that I was a novice writer, or ruin their one chance to get away from the constant pandering. It just seemed rude to me.

After dinner, I went out and listened to some live music with some of the agents, where Emmanuelle Morgen, an agent from Stonesong, asked me what I was working on and for the first 30 pages.

It was an incredible night.


Lessons Learned: Day 1 of the WLT Agents and Editors Conference


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If you followed last week’s post, you already know the steps I went through to get ready for the Writer’s League of Texas (WLT) Agents and Editors Conference. I’ll tell you right now that even if you follow everything to a tee, you will forget something. I know I did.

To add to my list from last week: Sign up for everything. It will cost you, but it will be worth it from both an exposure and education standpoint. When I found out that I was able to attend, I signed up for the Pre-Conference Workshop and the Keynote Luncheon. I was not, however, able to sign up for any of the sold out agent and/or editor one-on-one slots (10 to 20 minute sessions where it’s just you and them in a speed dating interview).

My intended timeline for Day 1 (Friday) went as such: 8:00 wakeup and shower; 9:00 have copies of my first chapter, synopsis, and query made, and package; 10:00 pick up rental car; 10:30 pack the car and head to Austin; 11:30 check in and sign up for any one-on-one sessions that may be available; 3:00 Pre-Conference Workshop; 5:30 Writer’s Coffeehouse Welcome Session and Mixer.

It was a good plan.

8:00 – I got up and got moderately ready, had a cup of coffee and was out the door. The copies and packaging was not as easy as I thought it would be, but looked good in the end.

10:45 – I got home and had to take another shower because, frankly, I was starting to freak-out and was nervously sweating. I threw on my Day 1 daytime look (brown slacks, tan shirt, cornflower blue tie), and was out the door again.

11:00 – The rental place didn’t have a car ready, saying that I was supposed to pick it up at 10:00. A reasonable person would have thought it would have been ready an hour before, but arguing got me nowhere. Eventually I got the rental car… at about 11:45.

12:00 – I was on the road. I really hadn’t counted on hitting Austin’s lunch-time traffic, which I admit was a tad naïve seeming the conference was in downtown Austin.

1:45 – I arrived at the hotel, checked in, threw my luggage in my room, grabbed my writing bag, and made my way to check in with the conference.

The conference had a Wild Pitch Box. The idea was that you could print off a copy of your written pitch – the abbreviated presentation of what you have to sell – that could be up to 250 words long and, on the last day, it could be randomly drawn and critiqued by a panel of industry professionals in front of all of the agents and editors. Having done extensive homework, and being very confident in my abilities, I had this ready to go and dropped my submissions in the box.

From there I walked around and met a few of the other early arrivals. I noticed right off that I was one of very few that wore a tie.

3:00 – I sat at the nearest table to the front of the Pre-Conference Workshop with the Keynote Speaker, Chuck Sambuchino. With pen and pad in hand, I prepared for a class from the expert on “Prep your Pitch.” 20 minutes in, I abandoned my notebook and started making notes directly on my “polished” work.

What I learned about making a 3-10 sentence pitch:
1. Identify your main characters (no more than a few).
2. What is unique about your main character?
3. What is the inciting incident?
4. What is the plot?
5. What are the complications?
6. What are the stakes if your protagonist fails?
7. Don’t give away the ending.

Mention your credentials if they made you money. Nobody cares if your friends and family love your work, or even if you’ve been published in a high school/college newsletter. The industry is a money making industry. Generalities will also sink a pitch. Be specific. Elicit emotions. And, what qualifies YOU to write this novel?

I spoke with Mr. Sambuchino after his brilliant class, and ran my pitch by him. He said it was “terrible.” It’s a little humbling when the Keynote Speaker tells you that, but it’s exactly what I needed to hear, and he gave me some suggestions to be more effective. I left the class feeling more nervous than ever, and pulled my terrible pitches from the Wild Pitch Box.

5:30 – I changed into my Day 1 evening look (charcoal gray slacks, black shirt, and bright pink tie), and headed to the Welcome Session and Mixer. Again, not very many people dressed up for the event. Conscious to not get any snacks or drinks that would ruin my breath, I took a seat and started conversations. I hadn’t noticed that I was sitting next to Marcy Posner, an agent with Folio Literary Management, who is a very nice woman that doesn’t represent my genre.

After the formal introductions of the faculty and welcome to the 20th Annual Agents and Editors Conference, they opened the bar and encouraged us to mingle. Hundreds of writers meandered about, most of which seemed to know someone else there, unlike myself who didn’t know a soul. What I had on my side was an outgoing personality, quick wit, was dressed to be noticed, and an in-depth knowledge of the industry. I talked with quite a few writers, practicing and refining my pitch until I felt comfortable enough to actually approach an agent.

Remember going to middle school dances and wanting to ask a girl you like to dance, but you had no idea how to approach her? What if you panic? What if she says no? It’s a lot of pressure.

But I had done my homework. At the top of my list was Brooks Sherman, an agent with Fine Print Literary Management, whose bio included a line about opening with a funny story. I also knew he’s done work with the Peace Corps in Africa, so I shook his hand and told him a story about when I was in Korea that got him laughing. I then asked him if I could give him my pitch for a horror novel, which I did, and he gave me his card and told me to send him some pages. SUCCESS! I shook his hand again and got a drink as fast as I could.

An unexpected success happened while I was talking with another writer off to the side. I was telling him about a YA novel I’m working on, and Taylor Martindale, an agent from Full Circle Literary, overheard the conversation. She gave me her card and told me to send her some pages. Talk about a confidence booster.

I later ran into Chuck Sambuchino, who remembered my name and noticed I had changed my outfit. Again, dress to be remembered.

After the event was over at about 8:00, I was enjoying a glass of wine, and fell in, quite by accident, with an amazing group of writers (Brad McLelland, Gloria Bankler, Dustin Bass, and Kat Patrick). We practiced our pitches and laughed until we went hoarse over dinner. Again, networking and making friends.

Next week, I’ll go into Day 2: lots of classes and a chance meeting that opened doors.


Happy 4th of July!


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For a moment, I’ll deviate from my usual rhetoric and say, “Thank you,” to all of the men and women serving our country. It may sound self-serving, but after 18 years of military service (17 of them on Active Duty), and having traveled the world a few times over, I can honestly say that I appreciate what our armed forces provide: Freedom, and the rights of the individual. Remember, especially on this day, that everything we have has been fought for; nothing given.

Today I want you to be thankful for the right to be yourself if you have the will to do so. Be thankful for a government for the people, by the people, that allows individuals the opportunity to achieve anything we set our minds to – just as long as we don’t infringe upon the individual rights of another.

As Americans, we have no royalty to bow to, no cast system or set roles. What we have is the American Dream. As the British comedian Eddie Izzard once said, “The American Dream is to be born in the gutter, then get all the money in the world and stick it in your ears.” I think that’s a fair assessment since we all seem to share a collective chip on our shoulders.

And so I’ll take a few minutes to talk about one of my literary heroes, a patriot in his own right, and the father of war correspondents: Walt Whitman.

“Beat! Beat! Drums! Blow! Bugles! Blow! Make no parley, stop for no expostulation, mind not the timid, mind not the weeper or prayer…”

In 1861, rebellious States of the South attempted to secede from the United States, prompting the American Civil War. Whitman, fueled by love of his country, began a theme of patriotism and valor in his work, beginning with the war anthem Beat! Beat! Drums!

Though Whitman did not join the military ranks, he was no stranger to bravery and war. In his poem Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night, about a fallen soldier, he expresses the heartache and horror of war, saying, “Vigil strange I kept on the field one night; when you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day, one look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget.”

On 15 April 1865, President Abraham Lincoln, his greatest single muse, was shot and killed by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. A poetic elegy called Hush’d Be the Camps To-day, was written 19 days later in President Lincoln’s honor.

Hush’d Be the Camps To-day was the collective rendering of honors by all Union soldiers upon the assassination of President Lincoln. In the first stanza, the commander in the poem says, “…Soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons, and each with musing soul retire to celebrate, our commander’s death.”

In the third stanza, the commander in the poem says to, what I assume is Whitman himself, “But sing poet in our name, sing of the love we bore him – because you, dweller in camps, know it truly.”

Why would a commander in an Army Camp be speaking to Walt Whitman in such a way? As mentioned before, Walt Whitman was not a soldier, but was what was called a “camp dweller,” in that he was a civilian embedded in the Army camps of the Civil War, much like you’d see CNN doing today. At one point, over some confusion concerning a list of wounded soldiers, Whitman thought his brother, an Army officer, George Washington Whitman, had been injured and traveled Southward, going military camp to military camp looking for his brother.

He knew that the military is steeped in tradition and ritual, and saying farewell to our fallen comrades in arms is amongst the most time-honored of traditions (we play Taps not only at funerals, but also nightly overseas at 10:00 pm to remind us of them). In the poem, the commander announces Lincoln’s death to the troops, and asks the “dweller” to tell the newspaper he works for, and by extension the world, of the love and respect the soldiers had for President Lincoln.

But, as Whitman says in his poem O Captain! My Captain!, “But I with mournful tread, walk the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead.” Life must, and will, go on.

His style is free-flowing and uninhibited by the drudgery of the classic rules of literature; extremely visceral. He was an American who was not afraid to say what was on his mind. If he felt it, he wrote it; not for publicists or money, but because it was in his nature. He was a wordsmith who stayed true to himself, and for that he is great.

Happy 4th of July.


Walt Whitman

Lessons Learned: Prep Work


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Last weekend I attended the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference in Austin, and accomplished more in a few days than I have in four years of passively querying agents.


Conferences are all about networking with workshops and speeches sprinkled on top. By attending a conference and meeting an agent first hand, you go to the top of the slush pile (industry-speak for a mound of query letters that will eventually find their way into the shredder). Remember, I have a very demanding, fulltime job and still found time to get all of this done.

The key to success, I found, was preparation meets opportunity. Over the next few weeks, I’ll go over what I did to get noticed as a fresh new face to the industry (which is just a polite way of saying that I was neophyte, which is just an obnoxious way of saying I had no idea what I was doing).

This week will be all about the preparation.

Step #1: Information Hoarding

This step will be continuous in the weeks leading up to the conference. Being a student of writing, I wanted to know what the precedence was. Piled up beside me are the latest versions of Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published, and a slew of articles both paperback and online. Each will give you vague directions on what to expect, but I found an article in The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Ricki Schultz to be the most informative. From there, I built my check list.

The next step was to study the conference itself. Who was going to attend? What did they represent? How the hell was I going to talk with these industry giants in a way that made them love me? So I put together a spreadsheet with their names, pictures, agencies, what they represented, who they already represented, and poured through interviews and personal websites to find anything I could open with besides, “I hope this isn’t creepy, but I’ve been watching you for some time now…”

Step #2: Location

This one is time sensitive, so it gets a little priority. Get a room at the hotel the conference is being held at. Not only is it convenient, but all of the speakers, faculty, agents and editors will be staying there as well. Remember that conferences are mostly about networking, and a chance meeting or cocktail outside business hours can be invaluable.

Step #3: Look Professional

Yes, as a writer you are a free spirit; a deep, rebel soul that cannot be contained and snubs their nose at society. Good for you. But if you are attending a conference, you’ll want to at least look professional. That means you shave off the dreadlocked beard and clip the 10-inch fingernails before you exit your Shoe Bomber cabin in the woods. In my case, I have been in the military so long I wouldn’t know what to do with long hair (over one-inch in length) let alone have a decent wardrobe. I think I had one dusty tie in the back of my closet from the 1990s. Since I was not going to wear camouflage and body armor, I went shopping, and spent three hours in the Russian Gulog men’s department trying on outfit after outfit. There were return trips. Result: I was very professionally dressed.

Miscellaneous: I had business cards made – NICE business cards made, for which I was complimented on and asked where I got them ( I needed something to carry around notebooks, pamphlets, pens, etc, so my lovely wife bought me a fantastic leather case (, for which I was complimented on. I’m not saying that looking like a professional made me any better a writer than any of my counterparts, just that first impressions are important. But, as I will go over later, it did open a unique opportunity.

Step #4: Practice your Pitch

There is no way to over-emphasize the importance of this step. In 2010, I met David Morrell, Steve Berry, and Andy Harp in Baghdad. David Morrell asked me what my novel was about and I could not articulate the answer. I was determined that I wouldn’t choke again. So, I went over it and over it with my wife. It’s incredibly hard to boil down the complexities of a novel – YOUR novel – into a couple of quick sentences. Writers have a nasty habit of getting married to the details and I am no different. Have a friend ask you what your book is about and keep it simple. If the agent or editor wants to know more, tell them more then and only then.

For example: A great white shark terrorizes a small town off the coast of New England. Quick, clean and to the point.

Step #5: House Keeping

Polish your work. Though I spent the most time on this step, I put it next to last in the priorities because of hindsight. I’d read in a few places that you need to have a solid synopsis and the first chapter of your manuscript printed and ready to go in case they ask for it. I was killing myself getting this done. I had folders set up with business cards, a synopsis and the first chapter of both novels; 10 copies of each plus one for me to reference. It was beautiful, right down to the use of paper clips because, supposedly, agents and editors hate staples. I lugged all of these copies around for hours until the Key Note Speaker, Chuck Sambuchino, told us that agents will absolutely NOT ask for hard copies of anything. And he was right. They will, however, ask you to e-mail work to them if you can sell it.

Step #6: Breathe

My nerves were shot leading up to the conference. I got maybe a few hours of sleep a night, and practiced breathing exercises just to keep myself from going into a full blown panic attack. Seeming how I have deployed and found myself in extremely dangerous, life and death situations without batting an eye, it sounds kind of ridiculous, but I assure you that it happens. Just breathe. You will do fine, especially if you come prepared.

Next week, I will go into the first day of the conference and what I did to get noticed and some great people I met (who may or may not be infected by the T Virus).


The Power of Blurbs


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I was recently asked why blurbs are so central to the marketing of books? Do they really impact sales? Or are they simply an inexpensive form of advocacy that makes everyone feel good but accomplishes little else?

Yes, yes, and, more importantly, yes.

What is a blurb? A blurb is one of those quotes you see on the cover of novels from various other authors or from New York Times, etc.

Blurbs are important to central marketing, especially for an up and coming author, because it adds instant credibility. If you’re in a book store, then odds are you have read books before. Based off that premises, you probably have a favorite genre, and if you have a favorite genre, you probably have a coterie of authors you admire. You have a connection with said authors and you assume they would have similar likes. If you know that an author you like enjoys the work of someone, there’s a good chance that you’ll like it as well.

As a research exercise, I Googled William Faulkner’s name and categorized the results; roughly 25% of websites gathered were of marketing value (, etc). I also asked several people I know how they decide what books to buy, and an overwhelming majority buys books based on word of mouth. As I’ve stated above, this is someone you may not know personally, yet “know” better than some friends or family, giving you a word of mouth endorsement. Depending on the connection you have with a certain author, it may just be what gets you to pull out the debit card.

It is an inexpensive form of advocacy meant to make everyone feel good, but that in itself accomplishes a lot. The publishing business is not a band of shut-ins that crank out books and they magically get printed. An enormous part of publishing is networking. Who do you know and how do you know them? Consider it like high school and you want to be the prom king/queen, whatever; you are not going to get anywhere unless you have friends and people that respect you. By asking another author to blurb your book, you are in no uncertain terms telling them that you respect them; they will remember your name; they may talk about you or your work over cocktails with someone else in the publishing business; that other person may reach out and contact you later. Networking is absolutely vital to your success.

Run for your Lives 15 Dec 2012 (22)