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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: novel

How to write a mystery without even knowing it

Stephen H. Provost

Fleetwood Mac released an album in 1973 titled "Mystery to Me." The cover featured a cartoon baboon sampling a cake, having apparently already taken a bite out of a book.

Four months have passed since the release of "Memortality," and readers have taken their first bite (not literally, I hope) out of this, my debut novel on Pace Press. I'm happy to say the reactions have been positive: a series of 4- and 5-star Amazon reviews, along with praise from respected literary magazines such as Amazing Stories and Foreword Reviews.

Many readers don't know how to categorize it. Is it fantasy? Science fiction? Horror? A spy novel? That's because I wrote to the story, not to the genre. I've never liked labels, so when my publisher called the novel "genre-breaking," it made me smile. I'm all about breaking down artificial boundaries, even if it makes things harder for booksellers to find the proper shelf for my novel.

I wasn't even sure whether to call it YA, new adult or adult fiction. Truth is, I wanted it to be all of the above. Hey, if J.K. Rowling could impress my then-octogenarian dad with a series of books written for kids, I figured that was a pretty good role model.

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
— Oscar Wilde

But one thing did surprise me most about the readers' reaction: Some classified it as a mystery. I definitely didn't set out to write a mystery. I've even been known to remark that I didn't think I'd ever write a mystery. For one thing, it's been my impression that good mysteries are elaborate exercises, and I'm mostly a "pantser," which is to say I write by the seat of my pants.  I don't create elaborate outlines before sitting down to write a book. I start with a general concept and let the story take me wherever it wants to go.

When people say the word "mystery," I tend to thing of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and the like. But mystery, in the broader sense is about keeping the readers guessing; it's about sprinkling enough clues around in the plot to foreshadow a twist without giving it away. And I do love twists. If you haven't read "Memortality," it's got a great twist toward the end, if I do say so myself.

So maybe I did write a mystery, after all, even if, to quote that old album title, it wasn't a mystery to me.

 

My first video book trailer: Memortality

Stephen H. Provost

For the first time in my career as an author, I commissioned a video trailer for one of my books. (I figured if it was good enough for Twilight and The Hunger Games, it was good enough for me.)

Friend and fellow author Drew Wagar created this 54-second clip for Memortality to the soundtrack of Quinn's Song: The Dance Begins by Kevin MacLeod.

Drew, the author of The Shadeward Saga, the The Elite Dangerous Saga and The Midnight Chronicles, had created a series of video trailers for his own novels that caught my attention, so I asked him to come up with something for Memortality

I'm thrilled with the result.

The stark, unadorned visual, with words that appear, then vanish as the video progresses, provides a "calm before the storm" prelude to a book that's filled with action. The music Drew chose underscores the mood: a feeling of reluctant tranquility, of serenity laced with a hint of foreboding. The candle - prominent in the work itself - preserves a fragile light, flickering bravely against the dark backdrop that's first grim, then dangerous. This is the life of Minerva Rus.

Will her flame endure? You'll have to read the book to find out.

I hope this brief preview whets your appetite for what lies ahead in the pages of Memortality. As I write this, there's just a week left before the release date. Like Minerva, I'm both anxious and excited about what's about to happen next.

5 Reasons Not to Write Fiction in the Present Tense

Stephen H. Provost

I picked up a friend’s novel the other day, opened it and started reading. It’s well written, and the characters are interesting. They’re the sort of people I can relate to, which made me want to read further.

But that’s not the first thing I noticed about the book. The first thing I noticed was the fact that it was written in present tense.

Apparently, this is a thing – especially for young adult novels. I’m not sure why, but I’ve heard it’s trendy in this genre. Presumably, the idea is to convey a sense of immediacy: This is happening now, and you’re along for the ride, not merely hearing someone tell you about it after the fact.

That’s the upside, but there are enough downsides to more than offset it, in my book – well, not in my book: I’ve never written one in present tense. And here are five reasons I wouldn’t:

  1. It’s not conversational. Strike up a discussion with someone. Anyone. I’ll bet you he or she doesn’t talk in present tense. When people tell stories, they’re usually telling you about something that happened to them in the past; making it sound as though it’s happening in the present can be confusing and downright irritating. It’s kind of like Kanye West referring to himself in third-person. Most people don’t talk like that. It sounds weird at best, pretentious at worst.
  2. You’re not a tour guide. Or a golf announcer. There aren’t many people who speak in the present tense when describing something. Sometimes, it can work, but that “sometimes” is rarely in print. You’re reading a novel, not taking a tour of Hearst Castle or watching The Master’s. Even that can be galling. How often do we have to listen to an announcer state the obvious: “He lines it up and approaches the ball …”? I can see that for myself, Einstein. Be quiet and let the action speak for itself. Which brings me to No. 3.
  3. It makes you more aware of the narrator. You’ve no doubt heard (probably since middle school) that good writers “show and don’t tell.” The present tense does the opposite by emphasizing style over substance. Writers who use it are relying on a technique to bolster the story, rather than getting out of the way and letting the story speak for itself. It’s crutch. The more you’re aware of the narrator, the less you’re able to connect with the story. Unless deftly done, the present tense is a distraction that keeps the reader from becoming immersed in the tale. Think about how often you see actors turn to address the audience directly from the stage. George Burns used to do it on the old Burns and Allen TV show, but there’s a reason it’s the exception, not the rule: It reminds the audience (or the reader) that this is “just” a story. If the story’s good, the reader should forget it’s a story. It should become an alternate reality. An intrusive narrator can keep that from happening.
  4. It’s tiring. While it may seem like fun at first to feel like you’re in the middle of the action, this can get exhausting. Part of the magic of reading is being able to go at your own pace, and – at least for me – being caught up in a present-tense narrative can be exhausting, especially if it’s heavy on the action. I can wind up wanting a break after a few pages, which is exactly the effect I don’t want to have as a writer: I want my readers to become so engrossed in the story they don’t want to put it down.
  5. It’s difficult to maintain. Because it’s natural to tell stories in the past tense, you have to pay close attention as a present-tense author to keep from reverting back into what’s more comfortable. You have to continually be on your guard to make sure you’re still writing in the present tense, and you have to have a damn good editor to catch the lapses you miss. Why spend all that energy on maintaining the present tense when you could be devoting it to telling the story? The best answer I can come up with is that you shouldn’t.

I’m not saying writers banish use the present tense to stylistic purgatory, any more than we should avoid first-person narratives altogether. I just think we should be selective about using such devices to be sure they don’t detract from the story. (I wrote my first novel, Identity Break, in the first-person format, and I'm pleased with the way it turned out; but if I had it to do over again, I’d probably opt for the third-person POV, because I could have told the same story more seamlessly.)

I’ll likely keep reading my friend’s present-tense book, because it has a lot going for it. The author is a strong enough writer to pull it off. But to me, that’s like being a golfer who’s good enough to win despite a two-stroke penalty, or a boxer can deck his opponent with one hand tied behind his back. I’d rather forgo the penalty and have both my hands free. 

"Memortality": Coming in February 2017

Stephen H. Provost

The phone rang. It was my publisher. One of the reasons he was calling was to ask me whether I’d be upset if he delayed the release of my forthcoming book on Highway 99 a few months.

You probably think I was disappointed. The book’s written, the illustrations are ready to go, the contract’s signed, and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done on the project. But as eager as I am to see it in print, the rest of what my publisher had to say made any mild disappointment I might have felt evaporate in the proverbial New York minute.

“We’d like to publish ‘Memortality.’”

“Memortality” is a novel I’d written after I finished work on the Highway 99 project, based on an idea that occurred to me when I was working on my 2015 release, “Fresno Growing Up.” As an author of historical nonfiction, it’s my goal to bring memories to life again. But that got me wondering: What if someone could do that for real, not just through words on a printed page? What if our memories of lost loved ones could literally bring them back to life?

That’s the concept behind “Memortality” (a word I coined by combining “memory” and “immortality”). It’s about a very special woman named Minerva Rus who can use her eidetic memory to put things back the way they were … and even bring people back from the dead.

I’ll be sharing more about the “Memortality” and how I came to write it in the months ahead, but suffice to say I consider this the most original, exciting story that’s ever popped into (and now out of) my head.

I submitted it to Linden Publishing, which released “Fresno Growing Up” on its Craven Street imprint and did an excellent job with the design and marketing. I didn’t know what to expect. But not only did the folks at Linden accept the manuscript, they’re making it their debut release on a brand new imprint. To an author, that’s like being chosen to carry the flag at the Olympic opening ceremonies. It’s quite an honor.

The target release date for “Memortality” is Feb. 1, 2017, and it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon. The Highway 99 book is due to be out just a few months later, so I’ll have not one but two books hitting the shelves in the first half of next year.

In the meantime, I’ll be continuing work on two new projects – both of which are moving right along. But “Memortality” is front and center. I’m thrilled to announce it as my debut novel for Linden/Pace and I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop during the months ahead. Watch this space and my Facebook page for updates on “Memortality,” including the cover reveal, plot teasers, etc.

This is going to one heck of a memorable ride.