As a special bonus, we also have Ted Cohen with us today. Ted writes short stories and has even included one for our entertainment today. He also has full-length novels (mystery/thrillers) and audiobooks.
What’s your favorite thing about writing?
The feeling of accomplishment I get when I receive the first copies of a new release.
Describe the place you normally use when you’re writing. What music do you listen to?
I write in a loft…really. It’s above our garage, with one window overlooking the entrance to our community. The room catches the Sun’s light throughout the day, and, given the nature of the community (over-55), it’s always quiet. It’s the perfect writing environment. And no, though a musician, I write in silence . . . no distractions permitted.
Anything special in there besides a computer?
Well, yes. Besides a Dell desktop with extra memory and a wide-screen monitor, there’s a violin made in Germany at the turn of the 19th century for those times when I want to take a break and literally fiddle away an hour or so.
What is your inspiration for writing?
My life, to as far back as I can remember. Oh, and photographs. In the last few years, I’ve used photographic prompts to inspire my short stories and pieces of flash fiction. Not only do they inspire me, but also, they inject an element of real life into my tales.
Tell us a little about a recent project (you may share up to 250 words of your work in progress or recently published novel)
My most recent piece of literary fiction comprises a collection of short stories and flash fiction. The latter all contain 250 words or less, so I’ll provide a complete piece of flash fiction below, together with its photographic prompt, as an example for your readers.
I often attempt to inject realism (including magical realism), either of a current or historical nature, into my stories. This may take the form of setting the story in a real town or of using famous people or historical events as an integral part of the presentation. I like to think of my stories as “literary miniatures” about life that evoke feelings similar to those created by the paintings of Edward Hopper . . . paintings that for a moment make you wonder whether you’re not in fact looking at a real-life photograph. In any event, here’s an example from Mementos, my latest book.
View of the defendants in the dock at the International Military Tribunal trial of war criminals in Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany, November 22, 1945.
“Name, rank, and serial number,” barked the MP.
“Stan Jacobson, Sergeant First Class, 02356974.”
“That’s not what’s on your dog tag, Jacobson,” sneered the MP, grabbing the chain from around the sergeant’s neck. “This tag reads ‘Glen Peterson’. It says the man’s religion is Protestant. Jacobson sounds more Jewish to me. You got some explaining to do, Sergeant!”
“Yeah, well, that dog tag is my lucky charm; took if off Peterson on Omaha Beach, D-Day, 1944. We were in the 116th Infantry, 29th Division. He went down the minute we hit the beach. I knew if the German’s took me alive, they’d kill me on the spot. So, I buried my tag in my sock and wore Peterson’s right through the war, right up through the Battle of the Bulge and on the tank, I rode into Berlin! Here, I’ll show you.”
He sat, pulled down his sock, and retrieved his dog tag, which he handed to the MP. “That’s the real McCoy, but I’ll tell you this: I’ll wear Peterson’s ’till the day I die! It’s what got me through the war!”
The MP looked at the tag. Satisfied with its legitimacy, he asked, “Any weapons?”
“Just two knives and a .45.”
“Okay, leave ’em in this basket.” Then, the MP pointed to the door that led to a balcony overlooking the Nuremberg courtroom. “You have twenty minutes to watch the proceedings. Keep your mouth shut and both hands on the railing in front of you.”
What’s your writing process like? Where do you get ideas for your plots? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you use special software?
I write spontaneously . . . whenever an idea pops into my head. No outline. I write completely by the seat of my pants. Everything is laid down in MS Word and converted to pdf, as needed for publication. I use an old version of Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 to do my photo processing, as required. Nothing fancy, to be sure.
I’ve had ideas for novels come from articles I’ve read in the newspaper (e.g., my novel House of Cards was inspired by something I read in a Seattle, WA, paper while on vacation many years ago) and wrote a ton of flash fiction stores based on photographs found on various Internet sites. My first novel, Full Circle, was inspired by my return to playing the violin after a hiatus of 50 years. My first children’s book, Pepe Builds a Nest, was inspired by my observations of penguins in Antarctica in 1961-62. I’ve always said: “Write what you know,” and so, as I said above, a lot of what I write is taken from my own life’s experiences.
Tell us why you started writing. How long? How many books? What’s your motivation? How long to write a book?
I started writing fiction (actually, “faction” (fact + fiction)) in 2009. I had just returned to playing the violin. A neighbor self-published a book and presented me with a copy over dinner. I thought “Wow! That’s neat! I can do that.” Now, mind you, I’d been writing all manner of technical documents since grad school. As an engineer/scientist, these took the form of proposals, analyses, reports, peer-reviewed papers, and so forth. As well, I had written hundreds upon hundreds of articles for various communications/electronics journals over the years, so style manuals and the preparation of manuscripts in prescribed formats had been part of my life for decades. I thought a fictionalized autobiography about a man who returns to the violin after 50 years might make an interesting story. So, I set about the task. It was a good six months before the book appeared in print; a little over four months of that was spent writing and editing the text with the help of the people at AuthorHouse. (NB: that said, for the last several years, I’ve done all of the publication work myself (with the help of a good editor, of course), first using CreateSpace, and now, using KDP Direct Publishing).
To date, I’ve written well over 20 books: they largely comprise murder mystery/thrillers, and books of short stories and flash fiction. There also is a set of illustrated children books in verse. One of these storybooks is published in Spanish, French, and Italian. Oh yes, I’ve written one Young Adult (YA) novel under the pseudonym Alyssa Devine. Almost all of my books are available in Kindle, paperback, and audiobook formats.
I guess I’m simply motivated by the challenge and the creative process required to produce a good book in the genre of choice. Certainly, I’m not writing to make my fortune. Truth be told, I learned long ago: God’s plan for the Universe did NOT include making me rich.
Some books have taken me months to write. In one case (House of Cards), I wrote the book in five weeks. On that book, in one day, I laid down 5,000 words. The book came together quickly, to say the least.
Do you research your books? Characters? Scenes? Tell us a little about that process.
I’m a stickler for research. It’s in my DNA. Everything has to be EXACTLY right when it comes to the realism in my stories. If a corpse is supposed to have floated in on the tide on a certain night in a certain area along the Atlantic coast, as was the case in one of my stories, you can put money on it that for that date and time, reference to a tide table will show the water was coming in just when I wrote it did. In the same way, references to streets and locations within the cities mentioned in my stories are accurate to a T. Count on it.
For me, the Internet is my research “tool.” (I am, above all, a research scientist by training.) I check (and double-check) all the facts used in my books, whether the data are related to tide tables, street names, or anything else you might find in one of my books.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
I simply move on. When I used to help people with writing proposals to the federal government, they often complained they didn’t know to get started . . . they couldn’t write the first sentence. I told them to move on to the second sentence.
Simply put, I just start writing whatever comes to my mind. Then, I go back and sort things out. It never fails to yield a good product in the end, though it may take several iterations. I’ve worked on a sentence over and over again until I got it to “say” exactly what I wanted it to say, but I’ve never been stopped because I didn’t have something about which to write.
What tactics work best for you when it comes to marketing books? Have you seen a change in the best marketing strategies over time?
I’ve tried them all, from a New York agent (a total waste of time and money) to discount sales. The latter—discounting my books on Amazon and using Ereader News Today (ENT)—has proven the most lucrative. Virtually everything else resulted in a negative return on investment (ROI). Even given the successes with ENT (and they were genre-dependent, to be sure), I’ve found sales there to have dropped over time. I believe, more and more, readers have become unwilling for pay for books (just as music fans have become unwilling to pay for music). Today, people simply want more and more of their entertainment products for free. That said, I’m unwilling to give my work away and will not sell any book for less than $0.99.
Do you do all your marketing online or offline? Both? Which is the most successful?
I have a Website but do no sales through it. I market mainly by word of mouth and (as noted above) by using ENT discount sales. The latter is the most successful.
If you could give advice to someone just starting on their writing journey, what 3 things would you tell them?
If you hope to be a success:
- Study your craft in college or at a university. Then, obtain an MFA under a instructor or professor who has published novels or who is published in major literary journals or other publications around the country. Connections are important! Who you know is still one of the most important things about this field. (Sad to say, but true as always.)
- Use an editor. Everyone needs an editor, not only to catch those annoying errors in spelling, syntax, and the like, but also, to help with style, plot, and other aspects of a story’s construction.
- Publish, publish, publish! Establish your credentials by publishing stories in recognized literary journals. Make a name for yourself before approaching agents. Who knows, you might even be surprised that one or more agents even approach you.