Sticks & Stones – The Draft that Never Ends

sticks_and_stones (Small)

Some of you know about this. Others may not.

For the past year, I have been working on the fourth Alvin, Alabama book, called STICKS AND STONES. in a way, it kind of resembles A THORN AMONG THE LILIES a bit. It’s about a serial killer called The Stickman who was active fifteen years before the story opens—before detective Leah Teal was ever even a part of the Alvin Police force.

Here’s a quick little synopsis:

The case was headed up by Leah’s daddy, Joe Fowler, the then detective of the Alvin Police. Fowler became the public face of the entire Stickman taskforce and, as he did with all his cases, he took this one personally. After some time, it even got more personal as The Stickman kicked things up a notch.

The MO was strange but very consistent.

The nine victims whose lives were taken by The Stickman showed no pattern. Black and white, male and female, they were all between the ages of twenty-three and forty-five. Their bodies, all found around Alvin between the years of 1973 and 1974, were always “presented” to the police a peculiar way. They were hogtied backwards, so their chest and abdomen stuck out rather gruesomely and their ankles and wrists were all bound together behind them. Each one was shirtless when discovered. At the scene, the victim was found with a wooden stake driven through his or her chest into the ground, or tree root, or whatever worked. At the end of the stake was attached a piece of paper, and on that paper was a drawing of a stickman in black, felt marker. In the cases where the victims were women, the stickman had one line of hair on its head, ending at her ears with little tips, and two circles drawn on the chest, denoting breasts.

But the stake wasn’t what killed them.

Each victim disappeared anywhere from a handful of days to hours before their bodies turned up. During that time forensics speculated they were kept bound and shirtless until The Stickman killed them with a .38 Special round to the back of their skull. So the shot was what took their lives, not the stake. The victims were dead before ever getting to the place their bodies turned up.

Fowler didn’t find evidence against Stork until after victim nine&$8212;a year and a half after the first victim was found. When Fowler had enough for a warrant, police kicked his house. Stork wasn’t there, but they did find the murder weapon verified by forensics from the two slugs the medical examiner happened to find lodged in the skulls of two victims.

After his house was raided Stork went into hiding.

A month later, based on an anonymous tip, police were led to an abandoned shotgun shack where Harry Stork was holed up. He doesn’t give up and the situation evolves into a Mexican standoff: Stork against Fowler. Stork wouldn’t drop his gun, so Fowler did the only thing he could do. He shot Stork. This particular shot sparked some controversy.

Claiming he was aiming for the man’s gun arm, Fowler said he must’ve overcompensated slightly. Because, instead of hitting Stork’s arm, Fowler shot a round right into his heart, killing Harry Stork instantly. They’d only been thirty feet apart when it happened.

Some people talked about Joe Fowler being a pretty damn good shot and wondered where his intentions really were. But, The Stickman killings came to an end, so nobody took the issue any further. Joe Fowler became a hero. Newspapers all around the state had him on their covers. He was The Man Who Saved Alvin.

Except, Fowler never let the case go. Something about it never gave him closure. Even after leaving the force a few years later to spend his remaining days at home with his family, that Stickman case wouldn’t leave him alone.

He died of cancer eventually, but not before putting his daughter Leah on the Alvin Police force.

The story opens fifteen years later and Leah Teal’s pa has been in the ground for ten of them. She is still detective of Alvin and a disturbing thing happens.

After all these years a new body turns up on the bank of Leeland Swamp in northwestern Alvin. But it’s not just that there’s a dead body in her town that concerns Leah. It’s the way that body looks when police find her.

Shirtless, and backwardly hogtied, Abilene Williams is found staked to the moor on the edge of that swamp, and on that stake was attached a picture of a female Stickman. Cause of death is determined to be a nine millimeter round to the back of the head before being brought to the swamp. The MO matches the original Stickman killings perfectly. Only thing different is the gun, but of course the original gun’s still in evidence.

It all sends chills through Leah just thinking about it. She’d already lived the original Stickman murders vicariously through her pa fifteen years ago for the whole year and a half it took him to solve it.

Now it’s Leah’s turn to tackle the Stickman. Except it can’t be the real Stickman. Her pa shot that one. He’s dead and the dead don’t come back.

Or do they?

The Stickman case was her pa’s legacy. Some consider it the high point in his long career as a cop. Could it be that way back then somehow he’d shot the wrong guy? Leah doesn’t even consider that idea. She wouldn’t be able to deal with finding out her pa had been wrong.

So it’s up to Leah to uncover the truth and hopefully manage to do so before this new Stickman takes any more lives. Only trouble is, finding the truth may involve her destroying the legacy of a man she respected more than any other she’s ever known in this world.

This book has been an arduous struggle for me (but a work of love, of course). It is twice as thick as all the other books have been. They’ve all fallen between 85,000 and 100,000 words. As of yesterday, STICKS crossed the 180,000 word mark. It’s sitting at 715 manuscript pages and I still have an entire scene to finish before I complete my third draft. And I have cut a lot. I don’t think there’s much left that can be taken out, so hopefully everyone likes long books. When I hit 115,000 words I asked my editor if I should be concerned. His response: “Go as big as you want.” I don’t think he expected this. I don’t think I expected this.

I wish I could explain why it’s so big. It’s got a huge, complex plot that really has some nice payoffs in the end. Many dramatic questions are raised in the book that, once things start getting figured out, they all fall into place like dominoes during the resolution. Until then, the questions all seem to contradict each other.

I’ve got eight percent more of the book to get through before draft three is done. Draft four will be my polish draft. I’ve never been this much up against a deadline. It’s scary.

I think it’s a solid book and quite possibly not just the best Alvin book to date, but the best novel I’ve ever written. There’s some surprising twists, and one that I don’t think anybody will see coming.

Anyway, that’s the end of my status update.

One more, sort of unrelated thing. Most of you have heard me go on about Story Bibles and how indespensible they are, especially when writing a series. My bible contains all sorts of character information and details, places in my mythological town of Alvin, along with their addresses, multiple maps of the town, demographics, literally anything I make up for one of the books has to be recorded so I stay consistent if I reference it in future books. So far, every knew book has added to my town because I needed new places for things to happen, and my population keeps growing.

Anyway, until now, I’d used a very cave-man way of storing this info. It’s written across multiple documents in a folder on my computer called Alvin Bible and I print them all out and have them in a binder that is near to bursting. Because I can’t quickly search or cross-reference anything, using it is cumbersome.

So, to revamp my technology, I have begun setting up AlvinWiki, a wiki that will have everything it that currently resides in my Bible. Well, here’s some good news if you’re a fan of my books. I’m going to make this wiki publicly accessible from my website so anyone can look at the information. In fact, I will appreciate it if astute readers happen to pick up on details facts or anything I may have missed while going through the books. Also, it would look nice if I had something to place as a picture for the major characters (who will all have their own page). So if any of you fans are artsy at all, pop me an email and maybe you can provide some art for it.

Because I’m still actively third drafting it will be a while before the wiki contains enough info to bother with putting it live. Oh, and another thing it will contain will be multiple maps of the town that allow you to zoom in for a more detailed view. Not quite like Google maps, but I’ll see what I can do.

That about wraps it up for this post. Nice to be back in the saddle. Feel like I haven’t blogged for years.

Michael Out.

Blog Swap: Garth Pettersen

Today, my fellow writer and good friend Garth Pettersen and I are doing a blog swap. Garth is a great sculptor of words and a diligent researcher. His first two novels are action-packed adventure stories set in an accurately-portrayed backdrop in the middle ages. His short fiction tends to border more to the eclectic, edgy, and quirky. So much so, when he sent this blog post to me, he actually suggested it might be too risqué for this site. My site. Most of you have read through some of my rants that border on being the writings of an hysterical maniac. No Garth, I think you’re safe.

So, with just a bit further ado, please enjoy this view into Mr. Garth Pettersen’s head (a rather scary place I suspect, complete with cobwebs and bats) and pop over to Garth’s blog to check out my post after you do.

Titles and Titillation


Thank you, Michael, for allowing me to write on your website. As always, you’re a great friend and colleague. This blog is about creating great titles for stories and novels. If any of your readers wish to read more of my blogs on the process and craft of writing, they can check out my website at (be careful with the spelling).

The above title would be a fitting choice for a story about a busty woman (notice the title has two prominent”tits” embedded) who works in a Lands Registry Office and is attracted to a co-worker.

That’s interesting—I’ve never thought about starting with a great title and writing a story to match it, though I used to give my Grade Four students “The Best Summer Vacation I Never Had” as a creative writing assignment. I expected them to tell of being captured by pirates or orcs, journeying to the bottom of the sea or flying through the clouds and so on.

Usually, according to Canadian writer Fred Stenson, one of my writing gurus (Michael Hiebert is another), you cannot craft a decent (or indecent, as the one above) title until you have completed your story, for not until the ink is dry on the ending do you really know what the story is all about. But then you have outside-the-box writers such as Harlan Ellison who wrote one of his most successful short stories from two sketches and the artist’s caption: “I have no mouth and I must scream.” Ellison had the perfect title before he put pen to paper.

Usually writers slap on a working title. I take Stenson’s advice and wait until the end to think about titles. Then I make an audition list of possibles. Here are some categories (see Fred Stenson’s writing book: Thing Feigned or Imagined):

  1. Direct reference to what the story is about, e.g. The Blue and the Gray (American Civil War).
  2. Plays on words related to the story, e.g. The Visitation (a story where a visit totally alters the protagonist), The Sun Also Rises (basically, life after impotence).
  3. The name of the story’s catalyst, e.g. Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel.
  4. Titles where the reader questions. What happens at Eight-Thirty? Three Day Road to where?
  5. Titles that are a puzzle—e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
  6. Plays on the connotations of a familiar phrase or quote, e.g. Before I Wake, A Delicate Balance, The Cold Dish, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Inherit the Wind, Who Has Seen the Wind? and probably Gone With the Wind.

Creating a list of titles is great fun. There are no rules, so you can try anything. I recently wrote a short story about a beaver that dams up a culvert and the frustrated landowner who is forced to clear out the muck and branches each morning. The man is a dormant volcano of anger and repression. I tried various titles that involved damming, plugging, obstructing, all playing on the man’s locked up emotions. Then on a whim, I looked up the Latin name for our Canadian beaver and the alliterative title came together. I call the story Castor Canadensis and the Clog, which I believe fits my tongue-in-cheek rendering of the tale quite well. This title falls under category two.

When I finished my historical novel—working title Journey of the Northman—an adventure story set in the eleventh century involving a trip by river and land from England to Rome, I discovered that Viking warships were called drakkars, so I considered Drakkars to Rome and such like. I then looked to one of my gurus for help with a title. To be a commercial success, he suggested, I should use words like sword, dagger, moon, scarlet, blood, blades, clash, crowns, ravens, thrones, cold, crystal, castle, and so on. I played with that limited vocab until I settled on Blood Moon Road. The novel wore that title—in my computer—and was offered to at least one agent under that cover, but it just didn’t fit, as if the book was trying to act like something false. Besides there were at least four other books with that title already in print.

I discussed it with my writer friend, Mary, who is the wise woman/mother earth archetype in the Chilliwack Writers Group. Mary suggested looking through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Beowulf for phrases. I checked out the former, then scanned the latter, coming up with a wealth of possible titles, including:

  • Beyond the Whale Road
  • One Good King
  • Out to the Sea’s Flood
  • To Sail the Swan’s Road
  • Flamed and Consumed
  • Bloodshot Water
  • The Sharp-Honed Blade
  • That Any Warrior Would Envy
  • *A Blade That Boded Well
  • Over Time and Tide
  • Scalding Was the Blood
  • *The Far-Flung Land
  • A Web of Chainmail
  • A Curling of Blood
  • No Trembling Harp
  • In a Place Beyond

I spoke again to Mistress Mary when I had narrowed the list down. I thought the image of swans flying south over both land and water might well symbolize my main characters’ journeying. Mary told me how swans mate for life, and since the novel is also a love story, I felt I had a winner. Blood Moon Road was re-Christened The Swan’s Road. That was some time ago, and the title has stayed in place like a Tilley Hat in a windstorm. This would be a category six title.

So, I hope this is of some help to other writers. I suggest keeping your lists of possibles, so in the future—when you discover that bright-eyed publisher who loves your work but can’t stand your titles—you’ll have plenty to choose from.

Garth over and out.

Updated Website, Fresh Technology

Angry FaceWhile I am very happy with my new site and how it’s coming along, sometimes technology can be a major pain in the tush.

I am now running MailChimp which is a lot more flexible with keeping my subscribers up to date on everything, allowing me to send the occasional newsletter out as well as allowing members to receive my updated blog posts in their email.

Unfortunately, it is not compatible with my old email-signup, so I’m afraid that everyone who was already getting my blog posts sent to them are going to have to re-sign up using MailChimp. You will find signup forms on my site in two places: At the Welcome screen, at the top of the right panel, or, at my Blogzone, on the right hand panel right at the top. I promise this will be the last time I ever ask anyone to do this :)

Hope it’s not too much of an inconvenience.


Michael out.

Writers’ Webinar: Authorial Voice vs. Character Voice

I know a lot of new writers trip up on the difference between Authorial voice and Character Voice. Sometimes, they think they are the same thing, but nothing could be closer to the truth. This webinar concentrates on character voice, but it does lead in with an explanation as to both different kinds of “voices.”

To wrap it in a nutshell: Your characters should all sound different. They should all have their own voice. When a certain character has the POV in a scene (and you must present every different scene in your book from a particular character’s POV), everything the reader discovers, whether it’s through setting, exposition, or dialogue, is filtered through that characters mind with his or her judgment acting upon it before the reader ever gets the information.

Certain characters will notice at different things around them. Someone who’s lived their life in San Francisco, probably won’t even notice the Golden Gate bridge as it comes into view while he’s driving–he’s seen it way too much. But if someone flies in to meet him and this person has never been to San Francisco, he’s likely oohing and awing all over the place when he sees the bridge for the first time. Each character will phrase their words a slightly different way from the rest. Maybe it’s a little stammer they have, or something about their ages (children see the world much differently than grown ups), but something is different for that character from all the others. This is where all your characterization, emotional growth, and story arc starts.

I will have a webinar about building scenes coming up, but one thing you want to do (unless your book is told entirely from one character’s viewpoint) is decide ahead of time which character will have the POV in that scene. Do not change POVs within a scene. Only after section or chapter breaks should you change POV. Now a lot of people will point out very successful novels where this doesn’t happen and my response to that is, “Fine, but this isn’t their first novel published, generally, or if it is, you don’t know how many others the author wrote before getting one published.” What I’m trying to say is, yes, there is an exception to every rule and you can break the rules only if you know the rules and have a good reason for not following them. “To be different,” is not good enough. There is a reason this rule is in place and that’s so we, as readers, see your POV character as she sees the world. By doing so, we learn her insecurities, her strengths, her charisma (or lack thereof), and their motivations. Going this deeply into a character’s POV allows us to empathize with the character and grow attached to her. Remember, your main character should become a surrogate for your reader. When she weeps, you want the reader there with you, right alongside her.

If you aren’t writing a book from a single POV, then you have to ask yourself which character should be the POV character in a certain scene? Usually (but not always), you want to view the scene from whatever character has the most emotion at stake in the scene. This means, if you have a husband and a wife fighting in the kitchen, you might want to choose whichever one will have the most to lose if they split up. Or, you might not want either one of them. A better idea, might be placing the POV from their daughter who’s down the hall with her door closed, sitting on her bed, and trying desperately to plug her ears.

That’s it for now. Next time we’ll discuss the difference between third person and first person and how that affects the words you use for exposition and setting. If I have time, I will dip my toe into the waters of Deep Point of view (also called “close” point of view), but my gut feeling is that will probably come in a webinar all its own later on.

Thanks for watching!

Michael out.

Writers’ Webinar: First Drafts, Practicing, and the Outline

This instalment of my Writers’ Series of Webinars talks about Shitty First Drafts (SFDs), Practicing Your Craft, and touches on the heated topic of whether or not one should outline before they write. Something I don’t say in the video is that I generally don’t outline when writing a short story (a short story being anything less than, say, ten thousand words). Generally, stories this short come to you basically finished. Or they grow organically from a spark of an idea. Either way, they’re small enough to contain completely in your head without needing to be encumbered with an outline of any sort. Anything bigger than, say, fifteen thousand words, and I will outline. The more complex the story, the more “story street posts,” I want to hit in my outline. Just think of the outline as another tool in your writer’s toolbox. It’s not there to cripple your creativity, it’s there to let you’re creativity soar, by taking away all the stress of worrying about whether or not your story is functioning the way you want it to while you throw down your first draft.

Another thing I don’t say in the video is that I’m a firm believer in getting your shitty first draft down as quickly as possible. This is yet another way to keep your left brain internal editor at bay–write so fast that he or she can’t keep up. Remember, nobody ever has to see your first draft but you, although, I’ve trained my agent to see past the crappiness of a SFD and occasionally I will actually send her a completed first draft with specific questions. But she knows from experience what my SFDs turn into on second and final drafts,so it’s not a huge deal.

Michael out.