July 16, 2017


That's right! I have a new short story out. It's available on Horror Tree.

I started writing it about a year ago and after many edits and submissions, I'm proud to say my story now has a home.

My Name is Jacob Hoffman

With daylight dulled by thick pewter clouds, the city is unusually bleak this afternoon. It’ll be dark soon. Just my luck.
Why the hell did I agree to cover Mavis' shift at the bar? I should’ve known better than to say yes. I should be inside by now, locked up safe and sound.

July 7, 2017

5 Characters We Need More of

1. The Multi-ethnic or Biracial character.

I went into greater depth in my previous post about this, but it's still something that makes it to the top of my list. Many writers love to claim they embrace diversity, but it comes down to it, they end up relying on the same handful of stereotypical token minorities (the black thug, the nerdy Asian, Latino housekeeper/landscaper). That isn't diversity. It's just insulting.

The modern world has broken down so many racial and ethnic barriers and it's time for us to start using that in our writing. Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes and, as I explain in my previous article, this just happens to be a group of people that are either exploited or left out entirely. This needs to change.

2.The Elderly

Sure, if we all think long and hard about it, we can come up with some examples of elderly characters narrating the tales of their youth, but that isn't exactly helpful. When you get a story set up like that (while it can work), it often suggests to the reader that there is nothing of importance going on in the life of the older character after they have aged. Which is to say, the most interesting and valuable thing about them is something that has already happened. I want to see more elderly characters as the MC's. I want to see the drama between two old ladies cheating at Bingo, the mundane and the exciting, the adventures and the daily life. It doesn't matter what, I want to see more Senior citizens as the main characters.  

3. Mental Illness 

We really need to break away from lazy writing that inserts "crazy" character here or there so we don't have to deal with giving them an actual reason to kill. To sensationalize mental illness is not only harmful to non-neurotypical people, it perpetuates misconceptions about mental health in general which then contributes to shame and reluctance to seek treatment. It's just bad all around. It's an evil snowball which gets out of hand and it all begins with "he committed that crime because he's crazy". Please don't do that. We need more stories about characters with mental illnesses that aren't exploited for the sake of a flashy punchline.

 4. Disabilities and Impairments

This includes characters over a wide range of options which includes everything from suffering with a hard to pronounce disease, to being hard of hearing, to using a wheelchair, to wearing glasses. Yes. I said wearing glasses. This might sound silly, but what I really want to see is more characters with glasses (who aren't portrayed as nerds). Reality check: How many people do you know with diabetes? How many characters can you think of who have diabetes? It's a small detail for any writer to include and seriously, its not that hard. This is true diversity.

5. The Caring Mother

In far too many books and movies, family is portrayed as either distant or dead. And while that may be the case for many, it isn't a universal experience, despite lazy writers' reliance on it. Disney is well known for killing mothers and, allegedly, this allows the main characters to experience more freedom to be active agents in the story ... but really ... is it so much to ask for some better representation of a good, emotionally healthy family? Sure, every family has their quirks (and dysfunctions), but I still think this is something many genres could do a much better job with. It doesn't necessarily have to be biological mothers, but I think we do a great disservice to the literary world if we only ever portray single parent households. We need to keep things interesting so we don't become repetitive or, heaven forbid, cliche and irrelevant.

What types of characters would you like to see more of?

June 3, 2017

Book Review: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

I started reading Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain a few months ago. Though I found it to be very entertaining, I put it down for one reason or another, and eventually it was due back at the library.

I decided to check it out again, and this time I simply couldn't put it down. The story takes place in Depression Era LA. It follows FMC Mildred Pierce amidst her financial and marital troubles. After getting fed up with her husband's unemployment and extramarital shenanigans, Mildred kicks him out of the house. With the bills coming in, she soon realizes she has to step up and find work to put food on the table and keep the roof over their heads. She swallows her pride and becomes a waitress (much to the haughty disapproval of her spoiled daughter Veda).

Being the ambitious woman she is, she doesn't stop there. Her side business (baking pies) begins to take off after she convinces her new boss to buy and sell her pies instead of wasting his money on his old subpar vendor. Soon, she can't shake the idea that she should open her own restaurant. But it doesn't end there. She's driven and she'll stop at nothing, whatever it takes to provide for her family.

Mildred is a strong independent female character (before that was a thing).Typically women in this era (and genre) played one of two roles. Cain breaks away from that and presents Mildred, despite her many flaws, as what we might call a "modern woman" (for better or worse).

She's not a great mother (seriously, Veda is a god-awful child that deserves more than the occasional slap to the face she gets), but Mildred typically makes an effort. After all, she's a working mother with secret lover(s), and drama with her ex so her priorities have shifted.

I was struck by just how believable of a character Mildred was (all things considered). We often see female novelists write from a male POV, but rarely do we see that sort of gender swap go in the other direction, much less in 1941. It can be a bit like a soap opera at times, which is possibly why it was made into the iconic Joan Crawford film in the 40's. The story itself takes a slightly softer approach to the typical high testosterone hard-boiled style (still plenty of implied sex, booze, & cursing). Some of the hard-boiled stuff out there, while entertaining, can be overwhelmingly objectifying and dismissive of women (not to mention, shockingly racist). Cain carves out that middle road keeping in the best aspects of the genre and leaving out the worst.

Pros: It has a wonderful literary style, nuanced characters, timeless classic, page turner, the female MC makes for a wonderful little step outside of the usual Hard-boiled detective.

Cons: It could have been a bit cleaner in that it had a similar appeal as reality television. I was unable to relate to any of the characters, but still wanted to stand on the sideline and get swept up in their personal drama.

There are many books that I'll never pick up again, but this definitely isn't one of them. After reading a copy from the library, this has made it to the top of my need to own a personal copy list. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone so long as they're neither easily scandalized nor expecting a redemption story.

If you get a chance to read it, come back and let me know what you think!

For more book reviews, follow me on Goodreads and check out some of my other book reviews. As always, if you haven't subscribed yet, why the heck not? You can go ahead and do it in the right bar above.    

March 9, 2017

How to Design Your Own Book Cover FOR FREE

I made the cover above in about an hour (maybe less).  It's properly formatted and proportioned for a 6' x 9' CreateSpace cover (for a roughly 250 page book).

Before you start making your own cover, make sure you know the dimensions that your printing services require. The cover above is entirely make believe, but I made it as an example of what your end product should look like (if you don't mind a minimalist cover).

I began by visiting CreateSpace and downloading their template for a book which seemed like a reasonable size for commercial fiction. Don't worry. You don't need a template to do this, but it did make everything a heck of a lot easier. If you're using a template you'll want that to be your background image (or to at least use the same pixel size and insert it as a layer for reference). If you're not using a pre-made template, be sure to measure carefully and don't forget to leave some margins.

I don't have Photoshop so I use Pixlr  but you could also use something like Gimp or SumoPaint  if you prefer. While SumoPaint offers more features than Pixlr, I can never seem to get it to work for me without crashing mid-project.

I put the CreateSpace template as the background image and built a solid black Layer 1 over it (my true background). Make sure that your background is a separate layer from the template so that you can refer back to it throughout the process.

You'll probably want to start with adding an image (Layer 2) and blending it or erasing around the edges with a large, soft circular brush. I was going for a minimalist approach so I only added an image to the front but if you prefer, you can find one that wraps all the way around. You can pay modest fees and royalties for photos or (if you're thrifty and patient) you can search through Free Stock Images (or browse Deviant Art and ask the artists' permission for commercial use. Please be responsible and make sure they have proper release forms from anyone featured in the image). Or ... if you or a friend have a high end camera, feel free to use your own images. They'll be original and you won't need to worry about copyright issues (or duplicate covers).

Another quick note about the image and placement that I used - I purposely chose this image because I felt that it would draw attention to our "Dramatic Title". Studies have proven time and time again that when you see somebody, it's a natural reaction to follow their line of sight. Thus, if you choose an image with a person's face (or at least their eyes) I would recommend that they are either facing in a direction that interacts with the overall design (in this case looking up at the title) or an image that looks directly at the viewer (forcing them to make eye contact with the product). One of the only exceptions I can think of for this would be perhaps where you have multiple people in the image (hopefully interacting with one another). This is more characteristic of books in the Romance and Erotica genres.

For Layer 3 I added a soft charcoal gradient that fades in diagonally from the upper right hand corner towards the man's face. It might be difficult to see on the image above, but at full size the effect is more apparent. Take note of the perspective and direction of the lights and keep it consistent throughout the cover. Adding a soft texture (in this case it probably wouldn't be visible) or a soft gradient is a tiny, super easy step that tricks the eye into seeing it as a single image, rather than a face randomly planted on top of a black background.

Click on Layer 1 and adjust the transparency until you can see your template underneath. Place a white shape over the ISBN box. (This is Layer 4.) It doesn't need to end up on the end product but this will keep you from entering that space with the rest of the text on the back.

If you have an "About the Author" section with a high quality, professional looking photo of yourself or a very small emblem to place on the spine, go ahead and add them now. (Potentially Layer 5 - 6)

If you're using Pixlr, you'll probably find that the font sizes are adequate for use on the back of the cover, but they're nowhere near large enough for the front. I believe the only text not added on Pixlr was the title and author name on both the front and the spine. Though I did it here, I would hesitate before recommending this since it's difficult to ensure that the same fonts will be available on different programs (and unless you're using black and white, finding the same color is nearly impossible as well).

Be pragmatic. Save it as a layered file then flatten your image (don't forget to readjust Layer 1's transparency) and save it as either JPEG or PNG [if you're still not sure which one is better for your project see here]. Like I said, I really don't like using Pixlr for text. You can try using ipiccy but my personal favorite is still Canva. You're limited in options but the accessibility of the site is outstanding. It might not work if you want more stylish or personalized text, but I always prefer to stick with more standard text anyway (though they do have quite a bit to choose from).

I'd love to see the covers you come up with. Let me know how everything works for you below.   

March 1, 2017

Developing Deeper Characters: The Best Friend / Confidante

I hate to admit it, but as much as I love a lone-wolf MC, something spectacular happens when you introduce a close friend or confidante into the mix. Suddenly, there's another voice that can almost act as the conscience or alter ego of the MC.

The presence of a friend allows the reader to see a more vulnerable (or even a braver) side to the MC. As long as they're moderately likable, they can be blunt, tacky, or forward in a way that the MC rarely can. So if writing SIFs ("strong independent female" characters) aren't your thing, or if you're looking to round out your character and give them more complexity, the Best Friend/Confidante may be just the thing. Friends can give your character much needed confidence, or a kick in the pants (whichever they need more at that moment).

A good example of why friends in fiction work well can be found in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The character's personalities balance one another and it's probably not just to reach a diversity quota. A sensual, outgoing friend can be balanced by her timid, commitment-phobic pal (and vice-versa) until each girl is left as the best version of herself. If you ask me, it just works.

In the world of creative fiction, we're often told that the MC needs to make the vast majority of conscious decisions in order to move the plot forward. While this is often the case, not every story calls for that. Not every character needs to be a "man of action". In fact, as a Phlegmatic personality myself, I find it the notion that every character ought to behave this way to just be silly. But, if the MC isn't moving the plot forward, who is? The best friend.

Don't believe me? Go watch Finding Nemo and pay close attention to the relationship between Dory and Marlin (Nemo's father). While Marlin does eventually learn to be a more active character, it is often Dory that pushes him to venture outside of his comfort zone and try new things. She gets the plot rolling and pushes him forward until he's ready to take the torch and cross the finish line.

Obviously, film is going to function a bit differently from the written word, but the concept still applies. In an interview with Sam Jones, Judy Greer explains this beautifully. Check it out.

For more on character development, check out Developing Deeper Characters: Backstory and Fear.
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February 20, 2017

Reading Recommendations: 4 Latino Writers Everyone Should Know

Poetry: Pablo Neruda - translated in English

No list could possibly be complete without including this remarkable Chilean writer. His poetry speaks for itself. He has a collection of a hundred love poems which are wonderful. In addition to his talented poetry, he's also well known for his political activism. You can read more about that here.

Short Story: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, probably needs no introduction. He's hailed as one of the great modern masters of Magical Realism, a genre closely tied to Latin American literature. He takes a more literary approach which feels like it was meant to be read slowly (at least, the English translations do). If you don't mind long sentences with lots of commas, you might like his style.

Vignettes: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I'll admit, I didn't care for this book the first time I read it. It was assigned reading in high school, and I would have rather been reading basically anything but American Lit. It's not that I hated the book, or anything, I was able to relate to a few points, but for the unaccustomed, vignettes are weird. I recently decided to give it another chance and it left me utterly amazed. I see now what all the fuss was about. It's beautiful and brilliant in a way I could only hope to aspire to.

The chapters are delicious bite size pieces. Most are no more than three or four pages, which makes it perfect for either reading straight through or taking it all in over the course of a week or two.

Of every piece of Latino Literature I've ever read, this is the one that best captures the essence of what it means to grow up as a Latina. And it manages to do so without becoming overly political or whiny. Open, honest, and vulnerable. Can't recommend it enough.

Novel: Like Water for Chocolate by Lauara Esquivel

This Magical Realism novel is great in English, even better in Spanish. It centers around Tita, a Mexican woman whose ability to marry is complicated by tradition. Rather than spending his life away from her, the love of her life agrees to marry her sister. Tensions rise when he moves in under the same roof as Tita. She soon discovers that her cooking was magical, everything she felt while constructing the dish (depression, passion, contentment, etc.) would be felt by anyone who ate it.

The book is wonderfully emotional (though not over the top in a Telemundo sort of way). It's the first piece of Magical Realism I'd ever read, and before I reached the last page, I already knew it wouldn't be the last.

If you're bilingual, I highly recommend the Spanish version (there's a lyrical quality to that English can't match). If not, the English translation is still pretty great.