Books, Films, Radio etc

John Yorke's Into The Woods

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Here's another book for aspiring writers, called “Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.” Although the book is primarily about screenwriting, I think it's quite good for game authors or novelists who want a better understanding of story structure. first of this book on the British Podcast “The Bestseller Experiment.” This is a very well written analysis of story structure by BBC TV producer and script editor John Yorke. Yorke has also worked in radio and video games, so his ideas have quite broad applicability. Unlike a lot of screenwriting books, Yorke is attempting to provide a formula for perfection. Instead he explains why certain structures are used and their impact on the story. So if Blake Snyder's "Save The Cat" and Robert McKee's "Story" seems a bit too formulaic, you might like the more scholarly inquiry that Yorke provides.

Bxp podcastFor writers seeking a bit of inspiration, BXP is the best podcast I’ve found on writing: informative, entertaining and motivational. What more could you ask for? It’s the ongoing story of two middle-aged blokes in their quest to write and and publish a bestselling novel called “Back To Reality” --currently on sale for $0.99. They’ve done some great interviews with a number of authors I admire, including Ian Rankin, Joe Hill, Michael Connelly, Taylor Jenkins-Reid and more.

Daisy Jones & The Six


I admit, I have a weakness for rock and roll biogs: The Doors, The Kinks, The Ramones, The Clash, KISS; I've read them all. Hell, I've read and enjoyed biogs by bands like Kraftwerk and I don't even particularly like their music! But it's pretty rare to find a novel that does rock and roll justice. Daisy Jones & The Six comes pretty close to being the perfect rock and roll novel.

The book is told entirely as an oral history charting the rise and fall of a fictional 1970s band Daisy Jones & The Six.  This is quite different from a traditional novel and the story reads like an extended Rolling Stone or MTV interview with a real band. The device works extremely well and pulls you into each of the characters, their foibles, their egos in a way that brings things to life. The story is being told many years after the fact, and the sometimes conflicting accounts are used to great effect in the story. You can still feel the raw emotions of how peoples lives are brought together including all of the joys, pains, hurt feelings and bruised egos. The characters are not always likable and the structure gives the book a bit of a meandering style, but it all comes together in a way that I can only describe as heartwrenching. Jenkins Reid has layered so much drama and emotion into the story that the climax is nothing short of magnificent. She captures the feeling of performance, songwriting, fame and addiction in a way that is truly memorable. 

The book had been on my list for a while, but when I heard an interview with the author Jenkins Reid on the highly-addictive Bestseller Experiment podcast, I bought the book immediately on Audible. The book works especially well in audio because each of the different characters is voiced by a different actor. It's a fantastic book which I highly recommend.  The only other novel I know that captures rock and roll is "Evening's Empire" by Former MTV exec Bill Flanagan. Flanagan's book is in some ways both funnier and deeper, but Jenkins-Reid's will may you cry.

Operation Paperclip


I've been revising the latest draft of my novel, "Gumshoe Rules." The publisher asked me to provide more historical context around some events during and following World War II. As a result, I have been researching the liberation of the Mittelwerk slave labor manufacturing facility by the 104th Infantry Division of the Army and Operation Paperclip, the US Government program to recruit German scientists to the US after the war. Both of these elements feature in the background of the story.

For those who are curious about Operation Paperclip, I highly recommend the book of that name by Annie Jacobsen. She provides a detailed account of many famous scientist and doctors who were recruited to the US, including Wernher von Braun, who was instrumental in developing the Saturn V rockets which powered the Apollo mission to the moon. He also ran the underground slave labor factory which made V-2 rockets at Mittelwerk and was both a Nazi party member and a Sturmbannfuhrer in the SS. I don't think any of these scientists were quite what they purported to be, but the US government did not want them falling into the hands of the Russians. 

So that’s been the focus for the past month. I’m glad to report that a new revised outline has been submitted and new writing has begun. While it’s still the same noir detective murder mystery, there is a more ambitious middle section and an overall faster pace. My book is available for pre-order at Inkshares and I expect to finish all of the rewriting and editing in the next couple of months.

13 Tips For NaNoWriMo Success

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Writing a book is grueling. And writing a book in a month, the basic premise of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), is like running a marathon.

A year ago, I wrote the first draft of my novel “Gumshoe Rules” during NaNoWriMo, clocking in at 55,000 words. This was the first time I’d written a novel after years of contemplation. Having made it to the end with a manuscript and a few days to spare, I thought I’d share my tips for how to get successfully to the finish line.

Writing is not easy. And writing a novel in 30 days is especially hard. Lots of people think that one day they’ll go do it. The trick is to make today that day and then do it again for 29 more days. I guarantee if you follow these tips, you will increase your probability of success. It’s like running a marathon. Anyone who wants to run a marathon can do it; but you’ve got to lace up your running shoes and train for it. (I’ve done both; running a marathon is much easier.)

So here are my essential tips for NaNoWriMo.

Do The Upfront Planning
Since November is NaNoWriMo, right now, the balance of October, should be your time to figure out what it is you’re going to write. While some people can “pants” their way through a first draft, you are far better off having a plan for your work. This should include a clear understanding of the genre you’re writing (mystery, science fiction, romance, etc.), the main characters, their backgrounds and what essential conflict the main character will face. If you can develop a rough outline that breaks the story into a three-act structure and identifies key scenes, setbacks and challenges, so much the better. You don’t have to be locked into the outline, but when you’re trying to write every day, it helps to have a clear idea of what comes next.

Visualize Success
While you are visualizing your story and how it will play out, it’s also important to visualize your story as author. To keep motivated and focused in training for a Marathon, there are times when it is beneficial to mentally rehearse the race. By focusing on how you will feel when it’s done, you can get through the ups and downs along the way. You see yourself at the finish line, smiling, being cheered, having a massage or a celebratory dinner afterward. You visualize how the months of training will pay off and you savor the success, even if it is all in your head. You can do the same thing with NaNoWriMo. Think of your pending success, the feel and weight of a 150-page manuscript in your hand, the satisfaction of finishing the task, the celebratory dinner. This will help you through the daily writing grind and keep you motivated.

Clear Your Calendar
Completing 50,000 words in November means you’ve got to write about 1,700 words (just over 3 pages) every day for 30 days. The best way to accomplish this is to go into anti-social mode. Cut whatever distractions and commitments you can. Just say no to TV, Netflix, movies, dinner with friends, family visits, doctor’s appointments, whatever. If you can send your family out of town, so much the better. For most writers it takes 2–3 hours per day to get their word count done. And sometimes it’s more than that.

I know writers who start their writing at 6am every day. I know others who steal away every evening. Evenings worked for me.

Many successful writers say this daily discipline is what makes the difference between a published writer and a dreamer. So carve out your daily time commitment and stick to it every single day.

Writing may seem self-indulgent at times, but it is important to broaden your view. After all, you are writing to create a story for your readers. They may not know it yet, but you are writing for them. You have a duty to supply this material to your readers. Even if at times it feels like it’s just for you, your brother and the family dog.

Assuming you’ve got a day job and some commitments you can’t get out of, create blocks of time where you can. Brown bag your lunch to work, plug in your headphones and get writing. Need an extra hour? Go to work early and start writing. Got a flight out of town? That’s several hours of uninterrupted work.

The one thing I would not cut back is exercise. If you’ve got a regular exercise regimen, keep to it. You’ll need it.

Write Fast and Loose
When you’re writing, it’s best to dive right in and not worry too much about perfection. NaNoWriMo is all about getting things down on paper and fixing them later. If you don’t get ideas on paper there’s nothing to work with. Even a bad scene is still a scene that can be improved. The trick is to stop yourself from self-censoring or critiquing as you go.

New writers often struggle with “where do I start.” If you’ve got an outline, just start with the first scene. (You did write an outline, right?) Who’s there? What’s the conflict? Who or what is holding them back? What is your hero’s first action to move things forward? Create dramatic tension to keep things moving. Having that tension build across multiple scenes is a good way to keep the pace fast. Your reader will be more engaged, and so will you.

If you’re not sure how a scene should unfold ask yourself: What would be the crappiest way to move this along? It might be some cliché from Scooby Do or some old trope you’ve seen in a dozen movies. That sets the low bar; in a first draft it’s perfectly acceptable. Hell, it might even work in the final draft if it’s well written. Often when you figure out the worst way to move a scene forward, you will come up with two or three ideas that clear that low bar, even just a smidge. Once you’ve got an acceptable idea, or even a lousy one, write it and move on.

You want to write with a fast and loose style so that whatever ideas come to you, you put them on paper. Don’t think about it too much and don’t worry that it’s not perfect. Just roll with it. Write the scene and move on to see how the characters respond to whatever predicament you’ve put them in.

Z-Machine nanowrimo wordcount 1Steady Wins the Race
Do your best to hit your 1,700 word count every day. You can post your word count at the NaNoWriMo web site at the end of the day. It can be hugely motivating to see the word count climb, especially if you have a couple of days that break 2,000 words and you end up ahead of the game. If you can make it through the first week and cross the 10,000 word mark you are much more likely to finish the project successfully. Everyone has a few off days, but writing a novel is all about maintaining discipline. Get your butt in the chair, turn on your computer and write.

Don’t Edit
One of the best things about NaNoWriMo is you can treat it as a non-stop improv theater where you put words on paper without worrying about how good they are. (Trust me, any words you write are great. Or at least they’re a great start!)

It’s important to resist the urge to edit as you go. That will only slow you down. The more you listen to your inner critic the less progress you will make. Many would-be novelists never get past the first few chapters, because they keep going back and editing. That might make for a great first chapter, but it can easily prevent you from getting to the end.

If you’ve ever seen the start to a marathon, you know that the bigger the crowd, the less likely anyone has a fast first mile. But in my years of marathon running, I’ve never seen anyone go back and redo the first mile to get a better pace.

NaNoWriMo is all about maintaining forward momentum. You’ll have plenty of time to edit when the first draft is completed. But not in November.

Make Writing a Ritual
Not to get too pretentious about it, but if you can formalize a ritual around writing, it will help you stay focused. For me, it was mostly writing in the evenings, by myself, without distraction. No music, no internet, no nothing. I wrote at the dining room table every day. Weekends, I would write during the afternoons and take walk breaks when necessary. Usually coffee was involved. Often chocolate. Sometimes beer.

The point is to make it a habit and surround it by things that signal “now is the time to write.” You can write with headphones in a coffee shop if that’s your thing. Or at the library. Or on the train. But figure out what works for you and repeat it. The more ritual there is, the easier it is to tell yourself (and others) that you are going to be busy for the next few hours slaying dragons, solving murders, fighting aliens or what have you.

Take a Walk
When you get stuck, it’s not a bad idea to take a short break. Staring at your computer for three hours when you’re out of ideas isn’t much fun and it isn’t productive. While I was writing, I would make sure I had written at least 500 words before taking a break. But when I was stuck, I found it helpful to go outside for five minutes. Or get a coffee. Or go for a 30 minute run.

Sometimes you need to let your subconscious take over for a while. Getting outside works great for this. (Don’t distract yourself with TV, email or Internet; there’s no coming back from that.) Often I would have a new idea when running and couldn’t wait to get back to my writing. Boom. Another 500 words done.

Once you develop these habits to help you get unstuck, it’s no longer the soul-crushing feeling it used to be. It’s like having an idea pen that runs out of ink. No problem, I’ll just walk to my subconscious cupboard outside and I know I can replenish it.

When in Doubt, Add More Action
Raymond Chandler famously wrote: “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” That might sound like a cliché, but if GR modern silouette zz2 medium 480you’re writing a mystery or thriller, it is pretty good advice. I used it at least twice when I was stuck last November and it worked great to amplify the tension by surprising my main character, Jack Waters an insurance investigator.

If you’re writing in a different a genre, a gun might not be the right thing. The point is to insert a dramatic moment that demands the characters’ reaction. Maybe it’s the sudden reappearance of a long lost wizard now transformed into a deity. Or a surprise attack of Romulans using a new cloaking device. Or an explosion and the loss of electricity and phone lines. Or a late night phone call with bad news, the kind we all dread.

Action scenes keep the characters on their toes and keep the pace fast. Most writers benefit from more action and less narrative. That’s what keeps the readers turning the page.

Good Dialog Makes Conflict Personal
One thing that can set your writing apart, is by focusing on solid dialog. There are some authors (Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, John Steinbeck, Ian Rankin) who are renowned for their dialog. It breathes life into the characters in a way that nothing else does. It heightens conflict and grabs the reader’s attention. It can also be a lot of fun to write.

If you’re not sure how to bring out a conflict, put the characters in a scene together. Make it into a confrontation with emotional impact. Show the characters working out a problem. You can convey their emotions, their fears and concerns by what is said and what is left unsaid. Strong dialog leaps off the page.

The only downside is good dialog is somewhat sparse on the page. So you’ll write it fast, and it contributes to page count. The only negative is it won’t drive your word count up as much as a bunch of dense description. But then again, if you write good dialog, no one will ever skip over it.

Get With Other NaNoWriMo Writers
While I wouldn’t say running a marathon is easy, one thing you find is that for many races there are people along the course cheering you on. It is much easier to run a marathon when there’s a crowd than it is to run 26.2 miles by yourself.

Z-machine matter twitter horowotizThe same is true for NaNoWriMo. If you’re in a major city, there are NaNoWriMo gatherings as well as global online events. For a few days last November I went to a local library. It wasn’t a big group, but there were cookies, coffee and that feeling we’re doing it together.

At the end of every evening, no matter how late, I would search for the #nanowrimo tag on Twitter and send words of encouragement randomly to other writers who had posted their progress. I also happened to get a nice shout-out from one of my favorite authors, Anthony Horowitz. You can’t imagine how excited I was next day to go back to the creative coal mines.

You can do the same on Facebook or anywhere. But just be careful that you do this after you’ve hit your daily word count.

Get Inspired By Other Writers
Writing is a lonely experience. But you can find good advice from those who have done this before. There are tons of resources for new writers. If you’ve got a commute, I strongly recommend listening to writing podcasts such as Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula, Kevin Tumlinson’s Wordslinger or any of the Sterling & Stone podcasts. These shows have a mix of interviews with writers talking about how they got started and practical advice on characters, plot and pacing. But more importantly, they help you feel that you’re in a community where you can learn from others.

Peptalk faulknerI also strongly recommend two books: Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Grant Faulkner’s “Pep Talks for Writers.” Both are available in print and in audio form. Faulkner is the executive director of NaNoWriMo and his book was written specifically to help new authors through the process.

You can easily overdo it by listening to podcasts or buying books instead of writing. So keep in mind: a little motivation goes a long way; too much motivation gets in the way.

When You’re Done, Put It Aside
When you get to the end of November hopefully you will have 50,000 words written and you can proudly say “mission accomplished.” Likely you will feel happy but exhausted. And maybe a bit over-eager to share your finished manuscript with friends or sign up for Kindle Direct Publishing and send your masterpiece out into the world. Or possibly you’re thinking this is the worst piece of garbage that’s ever been written. It’s not uncommon to believe both of these at different times in the writing process.

However the best advice I have is to put your first draft aside for at least three weeks. Take a break. Get back in touch with friends and family you’ve neglected. Go out for a nice meal. Celebrate the accomplishment. But resist the urge to read what you’ve written and don’t share it with others. Wait at least 3 weeks before reading it. If you wait until new year, that’s not a bad idea. It will give you the ability to read your manuscript with some objectivity.

You might be surprised that some things you wrote make you smile or laugh. For sure there will be things that cause you to cringe. But no matter. Now that you’ve written your manuscript it will need editing. You can do some amount of re-editing yourself, marking up the pages that your November self wrote. If you want to pursue publishing the book, I encourage you to look into hiring a professional editor. I used Reedsy to hire experienced editors to help with plot, characters and pacing. (Reedsy also has many free writing tools and articles.)

Very few people produce a first draft that is publishable; most authors go through at least three major revisions. But once you have your first draft, you are well on your way to success. And if I can write a novel, I know you can too. All you have to do is take the first step.

Zack Urlocker is a technology executive. His first novel “Gumshoe Rules” was written during NaNoWriMo 2017 and is now available at Inkshares.

For each order of “Gumshoe Rules” now through the end of November, Zack will donate donate $5 to the National Novel Writing Month 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Gumshoe Rules Available for Order

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My novel, Gumshoe Rules, is now is now available for order at Inkshares. They are running a Mystery & Thriller contest and if I can get enough people to order then it becomes a legit published book. It has long been my dream to write and publish and this seems like a fun way to do it. 

It's a noir detective story, set at the height of the Cold War. A disgraced WWII veteran-turned-private detective investigates the death of a German scientist, only to discover their paths crossed during the liberation of a sinister Nazi labor camp in 1945. The novel is written in a hardboiled style influenced by Raymond Chandler, with elements of Agatha Christie as well as more modern influences like Anthony Horowitz and Philip Kerr.

Inkshares has an interesting model where they let readers decide what books should be published. I know two authors, Tal Klein (The Punch Escrow) and Christopher Huang (A Gentleman's Murder) who have successfully published through Inkshares. 

Interactive Fiction fans may recognize Huang as the author of several excellent games including my personal favorite An Act of Murder, as well as games related to his book. I was inspired by his game to begin working on an IntroComp game called The Z-Machine Matter some years ago and that became the basis for my novel. 

A Gentleman's Murder

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Prolific Interactive Fiction author Chris Huang has published his debut novel "A Gentleman's Murder" published by Inkshares. This is a classic "golden age" detective story set in London in the 1920s, rich in atmosphere and colorful characters. Huang's writing style will appeal to fans of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Martin Edwards and other classic English mystery writers. Huang brings a modern angle to this genre by dealing with complex issues like race, discrimination and the impact of PSTD on soldiers. 

Interactive fiction fans will recall that Huang was the author of the wonderful "An Act of Murder" as well as three shorter pieces in the Peterkins Investigates series. 

Huang has sold the TV rights to this book and hopefully this will lead to more Peterkins Investigates stories.

Death in Ice Valley


BBC Radio 4 in collaboration with NRK, the national radio of Norway, has launched a new podcast "Death in Ice Valley." It's a modern cold-case investigation of the mysterious 1970 death of a woman in a remote part of Norway known as Isdal, or ice valley. It's one of those strange cases, like the "Somerton Man," that gets more complex the more you dig in. How did she die? Why were the tags clipped from her clothing? Where was she from? Did she have a false identity? 

So far, two episodes have been produced. The production and writing are excellent. Clearly this team has been influenced by the well researched Serial show from NPR. While things start a bit slow, each episode ends with more unanswered questions. The story is told jointly by NRK investigative journalist Marit Higraff and documentary filmmaker Neil McCarthy in a style is reminiscent of the BBC's radio versions the Martin Beck Swedish police procedurals. Because the case is not quite fifty years old, there are interviews with witnesses who met or investigated the Isdal woman who are still alive today.

You can download the series from the BBC or wherever you get your podcasts. If you've listened to the show, let me know what you think of it by posting a comment below.

Mickey Spillane - 100 Years of Attitude

Last stand
March 9 marks Mickey Spillane's 100th anniversary. He was a helluva writer, but he rarely got the respect he deserved. His first published book "I, the Jury" was written in 3 weeks earning him an advance of $1000, the amount needed to buy land and build a house. Even though it's a short novel, clocking in at 160 pages or about 53,000 words, that's s fast pace for any writer.

Spillane's tough guy private detective Mike Hammer became the template for a blood-and-guts noir style that was immortalized on film, television and radio and begat dozens of imitators. Spillane paved the way for many private detective writers and helped legitimize the paperback original genre. 

Nonetheless, Spillane was scorned by the literary world who disliked his pulpy style and heavy-handed plots. But he had the last laugh, writing more than 30 novels that sold more than 200 million copies in his career, making him one of the bestselling authors in the 20th century. As he put it "peanuts outsell caviar." What critics sometimes missed in Spillane and other noir authors' works was the pacing that drew readers in and kept them reading chapter after chapter, book after book.

"Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book."
--Mickey Spillane

Ironically, Spillane's death in 2006 hasn't hurt his productivity. Max Allan Collins has gone on to co-write more than a dozen novels Mickey Spillane from unfinished manuscripts that Spillane left in his trust.

To commemorate Spillane's 100th anniversary, two new Spillane / Collins titles are being published for the first time ever: Killing Town, the lost first Mike Hammer novel, and  The Last Stand, the last novel Spillane completed just before his death. (Both are available for pre-order with delivery in April.)

We owe much to Max Allan Collins, Hard Case Crime and Titan Books for their work in publishing these works. 

Like Mickey Spillane? Hate the covers? Let me know in the comments below.

Books for Writers

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I'm a sucker for books on writing. Sometimes, I even read them. Stephen King's book "On Writing" is a classic. I also recommend just about anything by Lawrence Block, whether it's his noir fiction or essays on writing from his years as a columnist for Writer's Digest.

There's no shortage of books on writing, and probably every writer has their favorites. My writer buddy Tal Klein ("The Punch Escrow") recommended two books for me: "Save the Cat" by the late great Blake Snyder and Robert Mckee's "Story." While both focus on screenwriting, these books are also appropriate for genre fiction, games, radio plays etc. They're easy to read and have a mix of practical advice, technique and motivation. They also do a good job analyzing stories such as The Godfather, Chinatown and others. These books are also available on Audible, which is particularly helpful for those with a long commute and not enough time to read.

Snyder and McKee put heavy emphasis on a standard 3 act story structure with key moments along the way. They didn't invent this model, but they are probably the best at demonstrating in practical ways how to apply these ideas to develop a stronger story. 

While some might fear that following a "Hollywood formula" will ruin their creative endeavor, I found it very helpful to understand techniques that keep the story moving along. (Scenes that don't move the story along and don't have dramatic conflict need to be cut!) In my view, having a good structure helps more than it hurts, and learning how to raise the stakes and add dramatic tension is as important in a novel as it is in film.

Your mileage may vary, but after listening to these books on Audible, I was able to strengthen my work-in-progress novel considerably.  Now back to work!

BBC 4 Radio - Game Over

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Prolific game designer and IF author Emily Short has written her first play for radio entitled "Game Over" now available on BBC 4 Radio. I was lucky enough to be traveling in Canada where the show is accessible.

I'm a fan of Emily Short's interactive fiction and I appreciate her efforts to write about the game industry in her analysis of games, her reviews of books and now in dramatic form. "Game Over" is an interesting take on the industry as it describes an indie game developer's attempt to build a game within the traditional game industry that is far beyond the industry's tropes. The effects of climate change on an Alaskan village could be an apt metaphor for the gaming industry itself. The acting is well done and the production is top notch. It's a good story and definitely worth a listen. 

However, as others have noted, "Game Over" is a bit heavy-handed at times. Perhaps in an effort to make the story realistic, the main characters came across as rigid and not very likeable. In this regard, it's reminiscent of HBO's "Silicon Valley" which has gone from comedy to quasi-documentary, and is full of characters you'd never root for, let alone want to work with. Nonetheless, "Game Over" is a thought-provoking story (and meta story) with a clever ending. 

I believe the show is available streamed from the BBC for 30 days in the UK, Canada and US.

If you've given the show a listen, please share your comments below.