Friday, April 8, 2011

Gary Alexander--The Writer's Life--Interview

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

Gary Alexander says he’s been “abusing mystery readers for over thirty years” with various short stories and two series. As a writer he knows all about writing because it’s a burning desire within and the hit and miss vagaries of getting published.

His latest book isn’t a mystery but uses his experiences and knowledge of Vietnam to create, Dragon Lady, his first literary novel.  

Gary stopped by to chat with us a bit about a writer’s life.   

 When did you decide or know you wanted to be an author, to get your works published?

I think it’d been in my subconscious since I was a kid. I was a voracious reader and really appreciated good writing. In my early 30s, I finished reading an anthology of published stories, very disappointed with most of them. I told my wife, Shari, that I could do better than this guano. She said, well, why you don’t try? Six or seven years later I sold a story to the late Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, $25 on publication.

What other kinds of jobs have you held?

Mostly in the insurance industry. I worked in the field and could set my own hours. I carried around a tape recorder and often plumped out a story idea while stuck in gridlock.

Dragon Lady is obviously based on some personal experiences. Was it difficult to write about these?

Difficult and cathartic, more of the latter. Over the years, Dragon Lady evolved, all versions rejected or (mostly) ignored by editors and agents. Ones who responded said they weren’t interested in a Vietnam War story. It isn’t a war story, it’s an anti-war story. I emphasized humor to highlight the absurdity of it. The parallels to Afghanistan are stunning. I could go on and on---

How did writing this novel differ from writing other books/stories where the characters and plot were so far-removed from your personal life?

When I’d drop the manuscript into the mailbox, the character went with it. The exception to that were my series characters. They became friends.

Like a lot of authors, you’ve suffered your fair share of rejections. Do you think a writer’s life is difficult?

I was thinking about that the other day while taking a walk. Passed a garbage man unloading our Dumpster. Walked by a convenience store as the clerk cleaned up trash in the lot. Stopped by a bar for a beer; the bartender was running her butt off because the waitress didn’t show up for work. On the way home, a police car and fire truck zoomed by, sirens on, headed for who knows where. I’d say there might be a few jobs more difficult.

But the rejection is tough. Do you have a low opinion of the editors and agents who rejected you in the past?

I used to. But then I’d set manuscripts aside that the “idiots” had rejected. When I’d completely forgotten what they were about, I’d read them again. Guess who the idiot was? Almost half the 150+ short stories and 12 novels I’ve sold have been repair jobs after I’d let the works ripen.

What was the oddest/worst rejection you ever received?

What hasn’t been the worst? The uniformity of the comments makes me want to tear what remains of my hair out. “Not what we’re looking for.” “Not quite right for us.” “Not what we need.” Ad nauseam.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

In the old days, I’d pace around the office, sharpen pencils, and mutter obscenities.

And in today’s electronic era?

I pace around the office, sharpen pencils, and mutter obscenities.

How do you know if you’re a writer?

Easy question. A writer is one who cannot not write. Would-be writers have told me that they plan to take up writing after they have time, after the kids are grown and out of the house or after they retire from their day jobs, after after after ─

I believe it was Ross Macdonald who said that nothing ever got written because the writer had time to write it.

We’ve all read stories about 28-year-old first novelists who write bestsellers. How do you react to that?

Homicidal thoughts.

Seriously, have you ever read a bestseller and wondered, “How did this get published and become so popular?” How do you deal with those negative feelings? Do those feelings have an impact on your own work?

Many, many times. Just makes me work harder. I try not to dwell on anything over which I have no control.

Gary, thank you for taking time from your writing schedule to visit us today. What about you?

  • As a reader or a writer, have YOU read a bestseller you wondered how in the world became published much less a bestseller?
  • As a writer, how do you deal with your rejections?

Dragon Lady synopsis
In 1965 Saigon, Joe, a young draftee, becomes obsessed with a Vietnam girl named Mai, his own "Dragon Lady" from his beloved Terry and the Pirates cartoon strips that his mother still sends him. As he pursues a relationship with her, Saigon churns with intrigue and rumors--will the U.S. become more involved with the Vietnamese struggle? What's going on with a special unit that's bringing in all sorts of (for the time) high tech equipment? Will the U.S. make Vietnam the 51st state and bomb aggressors to oblivion?

But for Joe, the big question is--does Mai love him or will she betray more than just his heart? Excerpt

Gary Alexander’s intelligent voice, filled with dry wit, and his own experiences give this story a sharp sense of truth, recounting the horror and absurdity of war. Reminiscent of books such as Catch-22, Dragon Lady serves up equal measures of outrageous humor and poignant remembrance. Gary Alexander was one of 17,000 US soldiers in Vietnam that spring. When he left in the fall, there were 75,000 troops in-country.

Buy: Available as an e-book: AmazonSmashwords, Istoria Books


Gary R. Alexander enlisted in the Army in 1964 and served in Saigon. When he arrived in country, there were 17,000 GIs. When he left, 75,000. Dragon Lady is Gary’s first literary novel. He is the author of several mysteries featuring stand-up comic Buster Hightower--Disappeared, Zillionaire and Interlock--published in hardcover by Five Star/Cengage. He has had short stories published in several mystery publications, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. He resides in Seattle.

His website can be found here:

Istoria Books is giving away free copy using a 100 percent discount code from that will allow a reader to "purchase" the book for free in a variety of ebook formats.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Editor's View: Show Vs Tell

Monday, I touched on emotional impact in your writing. Today, I wanted to share an article on showing and telling written by a friend of mine, Beth Hill, who is both writer and a highly skilled fiction editor. 

Sounds easy doesn't it? It always reminds me of Fridays in grade school. We had show and tell. It was always fun because you never knew who would pull out what for our show in tell.

Invariably one of the boys would come to the front of the class and tell us they had a critter of some sort, but it had gotten away. Our teacher's rule was simple. You still had to talk. So if Jonny lost the frog then it was up to him to tell us about it. That wasn't quite as exciting as the frog. Who cared if it could jump six feet and was sorta green with a pointy nose. We didn't want to hear the description; we wanted to SEE the frog (unless you were one of those silly squealing girls). 

This is the same with storytelling. We don't want to hear/read the description, beautiful though it might be, we want the action. See the greenish frog and pointy nose. We want to see the little suckers on its toes and hear the sound it makes, not have Jonny TELL us.

Show and tell is a hard concept to master. We often get showing confused with describing. Not quite the same thing, as Beth explains.


 Fiction writers are hammered with the admonition to show and not tell.

Writing teachers pound it into us. Books on writing repeat it until we feel we've been beaten. And if we're brave enough to put our work in front of our peers for review, we are pounded yet again—Show, Don’t Tell, our critics intone.

Great. I’ve already added 10 more adjectives per page. Isn’t that enough showing? I can only paint the night sky so many shades of lavender and violet.

Here is the doorway if not the key for many new writers—showing is not the same as description. A writer may paint a clear and colorful scene but still be telling rather than showing.

Telling forces a reader to stand outside a candy store window, able to see, perhaps, and hear what happens inside. But he remains outside. Yet when a writer shows, he invites the reader into the store to taste the bite of bitter chocolate or the tang of a lemon drop. The reader will feel the stretch in taffy; maybe even become mired in a mess of spilled molasses.
  • Telling is impersonal 
Showing is intimate
  • Telling is aloof 
Showing is up close
  • Telling is an essay about a vacation trip 
Showing is going on the trip

 Telling is often a simple recitation of he did, she was, I felt. Too much of this and the reader loses interest

 An example: 
  • Marie walked into the room. She looked at the blue walls and the torn curtains at the window. She was afraid. In the sink were a rusted pot and two dirty glasses. The room made her feel both anxious and nostalgic. 
Marie stepped into the kitchen, faltering at seeing the deep blue murals on the walls and ceiling. She shivered. The dark color absorbed the morning sunshine that filtered through frayed curtains.
Drawn to the sweet odor rising from the sink, she stepped close. She ran a finger over the porcelain. Still smooth after all these years.
“Damn!” Marie yanked her hand out of the sink. She picked at the Teflon flakes embedded in her index finger.
“Stupid, rusted frying pan.”
Both offer nearly the same information. Yet the mood created, the intimacy level, differs.

If you find yourself skipping long sections of a novel, chances are those passages are all tell and no show—you’ve not been invited in, so you pass over the text.

In your own writing, look for clues in words and phrases: Use of is and was and were, especially there is, there was, and there were; has, had, felt, and thought; uses of always (I always ate ice cream after a good murder); use of and then or used to.

Such words and phrases are not always inappropriate, but their use or overuse warrants a second look.

Is there a use for telling in fiction? Of course! Declarative phrases can be powerful when used appropriately.
  • Use telling narrative summary at the beginning of a scene to indicate a new setting or the passage of time.
  • Tell in brief spurts to shock the reader, to make a phrase stand out, or to bring a scene to a sudden and complete stop. This can be particularly effective when a brief sentence is used as a paragraph.
    •  I froze when I saw the gun in his hand. 
  • Telling can work well as a throwaway tagline for the end of a chapter.
    • The clock began its ominous tolling. 
And sometimes you can use telling to change the tone or to reveal character. Think private detectives who recite every detail of a new client’s appearance—her long legs were. . . ; her slit skirt fell just below her. . . ; her tear-filled eyes blinked. . .

Such a section, usually brief, is used to slow the pace of a suspense or murder story and to allow the P.I. to show off his smart mouth.

If you must include long stretches of telling (and must you?), break them up with dialogue or thoughts, or vary the sentence length.
  •  Show to engage the reader. 
  • Tell to impart information or stop the story. 
Show and Tell. Use both. And use them well.

If you have any questions for Beth, she'll be glad to answer them.


I love the written word, the ability we have to create worlds and emotions with well-chosen phrases. It’s my intention to share tips and insights and encouragement with writers at all levels, to help you craft stories that will entertain and satisfy your readers. That will help satisfy you as writer as well.

I am both writer and editor. My editing focus is on long fiction, primarily novels. I also mentor beginning writers.
Beth has many articles on writing craft on her webiste and she covers craft and other subjects on her blog:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Creating Emotional Impact

I’ve heard it said, and no doubt you have too, that to write emotion you first have to feel it. Author blogs and writing books will tell you all sorts of things. Write what you know, write what you love, and write what you feel. These are all true statements in so far as they go. It’s how we understand those statements and what they mean, and how to apply them that the trouble starts.

I think there is a mistaken assumption about writing emotional impact into our writing. What it is and what it’s not.

I can write about fear because I know what fear feels like. It doesn't mean I have to feel my heart racing, have clammy hands, and hyperventilate as I'm writing the scene. I know what anger feels like too, and what makes me angry, but because I am choosing to put my characters in an emotional situation of anger or fear doesn’t mean I’m feeling those emotions as I write. You see what I mean?

As a writer, I'm ultimately the narrator carrying the story from point A to point Z. To do that, I have to be able to keep my wits about me. I have to keep my goals clearly in mind, which means I can’t get bogged down in emotion as I’m writing. Look at it this way, a writer is dealing with a set of people going through various situations, having problems, facing heartbreak, making love, laughing, anger and fear—the gamut of emotions. As narrator of this group’s story I have to be able to relay everything clearly. I have to stay removed from the situation to be focused. Otherwise I’ll go off in a tangent or lose the thread of where my story and characters are going.

I’m rather clinical as I write certain scenes. In that sense I’m the observer as well as narrator. I equate it to being a therapist. Therapists hear the most heartbreaking details of people’s lives. While they have to have compassion and understanding for their patient, they also have to remain detached to effectively do their job.

Knowing what an emotion feels like gives us a base from which to write emotion for our characters. Our characters have to be real not only to our readers but to us. They have to act and react realistically. As we write, we put our characters (or they put themselves), into certain settings/situations. Much of the inner conflict for our characters is about them facing their fears. So we produce external conflicts in our story so they have to face those internal demons.

For example, if we’re writing romance or a suspense and we have a character that has grown up in an abusive home that got so bad she and her mother have to run for their lives. They’re always looking over their shoulders, always changing their names, always in fear because they’re hunted. Never taking a stand and able to fight back. Now we have her background and some idea of her inner conflict. As an adult she stays clear of anything that resembles the trauma of her childhood. What is the worse external conflict we could put her in? To keep it simple, let’s place her in a situation where she has seen a murder, and the murderer knows she’s seen him. Now he’s after her. Just like that she is again on the run, living in fear. But now she is an adult, not a helpless child. She has to take her stand at some point. Add to it a hero whose job it is to keep her safe, keep her from harm. He’s tough and strong and very good at his job. But let’s say as a child he came face to face with the inability to keep those he loves safe because he was too young and inexperienced. Now his job choice makes sense, as does his inner pride/need in being very good at his job. But internally his greatest fear in not keeping someone he cares about safe from harm. Hero and heroine come together, and emotional attachment forms. Now we have both characters facing their inner conflict/fears while dealing the external conflict/fear. Now we have in place a plot specifically designed to trigger emotional responses from the hero and heroine. And the reader.

Writing what you feel is the ability to write or invoke an emotional response in your reader. You don’t have to be feeling whatever the emotion you’re writing as you write it (although I’ll confess there have been time or two I have). You do need to know what a particular emotion feels like to set it up and then amplify it via your character’s reaction to the stimuli. If you know the feeling then it follows you should be able to imbue that emotion in your writing by the story set up, character reactions and hence trigger the reader’s reaction.

That’s writing what you feel and what you know. That’s creating emotional impact for your reader.

What are you thoughts?