Reading and Signing at AUTUMN OF FEAR

I’ll be reading and signing books at AUTUMN OF FEAR, October 5, 2013, from 6:00–9:00 p.m. This horrific event is hosted by Carla E. Anderton of Jozart Center for the Arts in California, PA.

Along with Anderton, author of THE HEART ABSENT, I’ll be there with writers Stephanie M. Wytovich, author of HYSTERIA, and Sheldon Higdon, author of “Hand-Carved Coffins” and many other dark tales.

If you’re in the southern Pennsylvania area, come see us It will be a howl of a good time!

http://jozart.com/the-autumn-of-fear

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I’m Going Back to School to Get “F”ed

Welp (that’s a “well” plus a gulp), I just slapped down the fifty-dollar admission fee, sealing my decision: I’ll be heading back to Seton Hill University to get “F”ed.

Seton Hill University, Greensburg, PAI completed SHU’s Writing Popular Fiction master’s program to earn a Master of Arts in genre fiction writing in 2006. DEATH PERCEPTION was my thesis. They’ve since upgraded the program to an MFA, so I applied again and was accepted. I’m going back for the F in January.

The extra 27 credits will center on the teaching of creative writing and writing about popular fiction—something that I want to do more of in the coming years. I also would like to teach at the university level someday.

The program consists of two week-long residencies, one in January and the other in June. If all goes well, I’ll finish the program around this time next year. Since SHU is only forty minutes away, I’ll commute and save some dough.

Wish me luck!

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How I Write Novels

Readers, have you ever wondered how a novel is developed and written? If you’re a writer, you might be curious about how other writers make their books. Here’s some insight into the process I follow.

Why My Early Attempts at Novel-writing Led Nowhere

When I was a fledgling writer, I would get a wild idea for a story or novel and rush to the keyboard. Excited and inspired, I would sit down and bang it out. Maybe I went on to the next scene, but soon enough, my inspiration fizzled or I didn’t know what was coming next and, unable to see my way, I got confused and quit writing. Then I wondered what was wrong with me.

There was nothing wrong with me as a writer. It was my process—or, rather, lack of one—that was running my efforts aground.

It’s only with my last two novels that I’ve used a new process to ensure that my initial idea becomes a workable story that doesn’t collapse when I go to draft it.

Pre-writing Reveals Characters and Story

CALL OF THE PISS FAIRY by Lee Allen HowardI talk about the idea development process, plotting, and drafting of my forthcoming bizarro psychological thriller in Progress Report on CALL OF THE PISS FAIRY. I did a lot of pre-writing for that book, meaning, beyond preliminary 12-point plot questionnaires and character sketches, I jotted down inspired snippets as they came to me—descriptions, events, scraps of dialogue—mostly written in the voice of my first-person protagonist Russell Pisarek. About 45 pages. I was just writing about the writing.

When I reviewed that information, a story started to emerge. I rearranged those lines and paragraphs of information into a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then I filled in events and information I felt were missing.

I used a similar process with novel #6 (working title: DEAD CEMETERY), doing the first 29 days of exercises in Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel.

For each daily writing session, Watt poses six questions of the protagonist and antagonist. Questions such as, “My first love was…,” “The person I hate the most is…,” and “The greatest loss of my life was….” I answered each question in a five-minute segment of free-writing. A month of this grew tedious, but by the time I finished the exercises, I knew my characters, and a story was emerging. I had character backstory; I had motivation.

All in all, I came out with 250 pages of pre-writing for DEAD CEMETERY. (It’s gonna be a big book…) Not 100% of it will end up in the book, but it contains many priceless nuggets that form the core of the story.

During this stage, I also do any necessary research and include my findings in my pre-writing (or Scrivener project file) so that it doesn’t interrupt me unduly during drafting. (Of course, I will still need to check facts when I’m writing.)

Plotting Prevents Stalling During Drafting

Once I had my narrative outlined into three acts, I then used John Truby’s Blockbuster 6 (BB6) to create taglines for each scene in the book. For example in PISS FAIRY, “Russell asks Uma to lunch, but a rabbit ruins his plans.” Just the basic event or revelation.

For DEAD CEMETERY, I used an Excel worksheet to track information and events for five characters through the beginning, middle, and end. Here’s a labeled printout of the 24-page spreadsheet, blurred to prevent spoilers. (Yeah, it’s gonna be a big book.)
Printout of plotting spreadsheet

Plotting Includes Detailed Scene Planning

For CALL OF THE PISS FAIRY, I planned a scene for each one of the tagline events, answering such questions as:

  • My challenge in writing this scene
  • My strategy for writing this scene
  • The scene goal (POV character’s immediate desire)
  • The character’s plan to achieve the goal
  • The opponent in the scene
  • The scene’s conflict
  • Any twist revealed
  • The scene’s moral argument (value A vs. value B)

I copied the pertinent snippets of information from my pre-writing document into each scene’s plan (a document in BB6). What resulted for PISS FAIRY was 60 one- to three-page scene plans. It took me from Christmas last year to Feb. 15 to do all my pre-writing and scene planning for PISS FAIRY—seven weeks.

For DEAD CEMETERY, I’ll review and rearrange the spreadsheet cells into proper story order. (Each cell contains a reference ID to a numbered paragraph in my pre-writing document.) When I get all the storylines as told through the POV characters in proper order, I’ll turn each cell into a tagline for Blockbuster 6, which will yield a list of scenes from the beginning of the novel to the end. (Note: You don’t need BB6 to do this. You could do it in spreadsheet, word processor, or Scrivener.)

Truly, I don’t understand how pantsers do it—sit down and write by the seat of their pants. That approach has almost always led me to stalling during the course of writing. Planning narratives in detail beforehand reveals most story and logic problems before I invest time and effort writing myself into a corner. If the elements work during the scene plan, I’m confident I can write the draft.

Once I have my scene plans written, I don’t have to worry about whether my scene is revealing the right information or whether it has enough conflict. I’ve already determined those things during the planning process.

Drafting Like Gangbusters

Now, with my stack of scene plans, I sit down to write the first draft of the book. During a writing session, I’m not concerned with what happens next—I know what comes next because this work is already done. All I need to do is focus on the material in the plan and write one scene. Just one scene. Two, if I’m on a roll. Three if I’m on a baguette.

I write a scene by copying the tagline from Blockbuster to a file card in Scrivener. Then I open the file and write the scene, making sure I include everything from my scene plan, which contains the pertinent pre-writing snippets. Some of this info I’ll cut and paste.

After all my scenes are written, I print it. As I review, I note any rearrangements that need to be made and indicate where chapter breaks could occur. I do the actual restructuring in Scrivener, and then I’m on my way to a second draft.

My Novel-writing Results and Goals

Following this method, I wrote a 51,000-word draft of CALL OF THE PISS FAIRY between February 15 and April 4. It has only one POV character and is not a big book. (But it packs a severe wallop, I’m told by beta readers.)

Because DEAD CEMETERY is a much bigger book, it’s taking me quite a while longer to do the pre-writing and plotting. I hope to start scene planning September 1 and finish by the end of the year so that I can begin drafting in January. With my stack of scene plans, I’ll write like gangbusters from beginning to end. I’ll probably go on a motel writing binge or three.

My Novel-writing Process Sets Me Free

Some writers may say that all this pre-writing, plotting, and scene planning kill the spontaneity and fun of writing. I’ve found that it sets me free.

I expect to be inspired during pre-writing, and I am. I expect to be inspired when I’m arranging those snippets into a storyline, and I am. I expect to be inspired when I’m doing the hard work of scene planning, ensuring that my character has a goal and there’s conflict over something worthwhile at stake, and I am.

And when I finally sit down to write, all my channels are open, and I’m free to receive my best inspiration to tell the story from my heart to the reader’s. And that’s what I do.

Following this process, I’m able to develop and test my ideas, get to know my characters, discover what’s happening, arrange everything in the right order, plan powerful scenes, and then write without stalling. My first draft of PISS FAIRY was surprisingly clean. I’m hoping the same for DEAD CEMETERY.

Will you still find holes in your story? Probably. But they won’t be big enough to drive a Buick through. And you won’t get snagged by “I don’t know what comes next.” This approach, I’ve found, makes the revision process much easier.

If this article was helpful to you, please let me know in a comment. And feel free to share what process works for you!

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The Motel Writing Binge

For the last seven years, I’ve worked full-time from home, and by the time my work day is done, I’m ready to get the hell out of the house. Most evenings, Saturday afternoons, and Sunday mornings, I camp out in one of the many coffee shops on the east side of Pittsburgh. But even this routine is wearing on me.

So I decided to do something new and adventurous: the Motel Writing Binge.

This is where I go somewhere—sometimes for research, sometimes just to get away—find a cheap motel, and binge-write for an evening and a morning.

Research in Clarion and Oil City, Pennsylvania

For instance, last weekend, I needed to do some research at Clarion State University for novel #6. A friend who lives in this quaint little town took me for a tour of the campus while I snapped pics with my iPhone and we caught up with what’s going on in our lives. Here are a few photos from the campus.

Clarion University Clarion University

Clarion University Clarion University

After dinner, I fired up my laptop in the junky little room and wrote til 11:00 p.m. (This particular Super 8 Motel room was more like a Crappy 2…)

Writing at the Super 8 Motel

I woke at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, snagged some unspectacular yet complimentary foodies and COFFEE in the motel office, then went back to writing til 10:00 a.m. Then I traveled to Venango College (now a branch of Clarion University) and checked out the tiny campus. (My protagonist in novel #6 gets his nursing degree there.)

Venango College Grounds Venango College

I drove in to Oil City, which I’d never been to before. I discovered the Venango County Museum of Art, Science, and Industry, so I made a donation and learned about the historic oil boom in the area—and about Rattlesnake Pete.

Angel of the House Pennzoil Signs

They happened to be holding a street fair, so I listened to the live music, visited the vendors’ booths, and bought some jewelry. Then I devoured half a barbecued chicken and came home pleased with my weekend adventure and the work I got done.

At the Terrace in Brockway, Pennsylvania

I had no research to conduct in this little town in northern PA, but I always pass through there on the way to my parents’, so I parked my carcass at the Terrace Motel on Main Street last night. Better digs than last weekend’s Super 8. I brought leftovers with me, which I ate cold. (I’m a tuff sumbitch.) Then I wrote for three hours on novel #6.

Terrace Motel Main Street (PA 219), Brockway, PA

I woke at 6:30 a.m. this morning, hiked across the empty highway in the drizzle and got myself some breakfast and a huge COFFEE at the Sheetz. I wrote til 9:30, when I threw my stuff in the car and then drove further north to my family reunion, where I laughed too loud and ate too much. Breakfast of Champions

My take on the motel writing binge experience

I would say that anything that jolts me out of the familiar routine helps to fuel my creativity.

Motel binge-writing doesn’t cost a whole lot ($46 for the Terrace), but it’s not free either, so I want to get my money’s worth. I have all my basic needs met (bed, bathroom, reading lamp and electrical outlet), but there are none of the distractions that seem to lure me away as they do at home. It’s hard to believe I get distracted by things like laundry and watering the plants, but I do. Usually it’s Facebook…

If your cheap motel is in the middle of nowhere, there’ll be nothing out there to distract you, either. Except maybe for the yahoos in the room next door. Just make sure you bring shampoo, any writing resources you may need, and that you have access to COFFEE if you need it.

I had a couple of great weekends, and I can’t want to do it again. If you’re considering this option, all I can say is, give it a try!


We Write Creative Writing Workshop: Self-edit Your Way to Publication

WE WRITE! Creative Writing University to Hold Writing Workshop at Monroeville Public Library

WHO: Pittsburgh writers:
     Lee Allen Howard
     Sharon Lippincott
     Monroeville Public Library reference staff
WHAT: WE WRITE! Creative Writing Workshop
WHEN: September 21, 2013 – 9:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
WHERE: Monroeville Public Library
WHY: Writers of all levels learn from experiences of published Pittsburgh Writers and experts
HOW: Registration at library

WE WRITE! Creative Writing University @ Monroeville Public Library will conduct the second in a series of an ongoing series of workshops for writers of all genres and skill levels on Saturday, September 21, at the Monroeville Public Library. This event will feature two Pittsburgh authors: Lee Allen Howard, professional editor and author; and Sharon Lippincott, author of five published books, teacher and layout consultant; and Mark Hudson and Marlene Dean, professional reference librarians at Monroeville Public Library.

In session 1, Self-Editing for Publication, Lee Allen Howard will explain the importance and demonstrate basics of effective self-editing. Structured exercises will reinforce his points.

In session 2, Research Tools for Writers, Mark Hudson and Marlene Dean will demonstrate library and other resources to help writers track down crucial details that breathe life and authenticity into stories of all genres and eras.

In session 3, Make Your Pages Picture Perfect, Sharon Lippincott will demonstrate the basics of page layout, demystifying styles, as well as page setup tools, selecting readable fonts and more.

The event runs from 9:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. at Monroeville Public Library, located at 4000 Gateway Campus Blvd. in Monroeville, PA. The cost is $30, which includes lunch. Registration is required, and seating is limited. Register early to ensure your place. Please visit or call the library at 412-372-0500 for further information and to register.

WE WRITE, Sept. 21, 2013


Watch My Going LIVE TV Interview

I attended Seton Hill University’s In Your Write Mind writing conference June 28-30, 2013. It was the third time I presented, this year on “Self-editing for Publication,” which was well-attended.

Matt Dowling of FCTV’s Going LIVE, a variety show focusing on arts and entertainment, was there to interview many of the authors. Here, I share the spotlight with the fabulous Sally Bosco, author of The Werecat Chronicles.

After watching this, I’ve decided I need to work on my posture…

Here are some photos from the show:

Sally Bosco and Lee Allen Howard Sally Bosco and Lee Allen Howard

And a couple more from the book signing on Friday evening. I sold all my copies of Death Perception!

Lee Allen Howard schmoozing for books Lee Allen Howard signing books

It was a fun weekend mingling with other writers and meeting my fans. I appreciate all of you!

More information:


Cemetery Photo Shoot

I love cemeteries. Always have. It’s part of my creepiness, yet as a Spiritualist, I find them not morbid, but peaceful, places. So being a Spiritualist, a medium, and a writer of dark fiction, a cemetery was the perfect place for a recent photo shoot.John Colombo, Photographer

Sunday morning July 21, I met accomplished photographer John Colombo for a session. You’ll see John’s striking photos in many of Pittsburgh’s better magazines and newspapers. Here he is, fiddling with his equipment. (He’s the photographer, not me…)

We convened at The Homewood Cemetery in Squirrel Hill, an east Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Flash umbrella and equipment The middle of the shoot

It wasn’t as hot as it was earlier in the week, but as we approached noon, we were both sweating. And in some of the early photos, the sun was in my eyes—until we found a shady spot and a guardian angel.

Too bright! Angel of the Crypt

A model, I will never be. It took me at least 200 shots to loosen up. In most of the early pics, I look like I have a length of rebar rammed up my rectum. “Uptight” is a good word.

Uptight Getting tired

Then, by a shady mausoleum, I finally relaxed (and stopped squinting). None of these pics are the final, edited versions. They’re low-res outtakes. But I wanted to share my fun (and chagrin) with you.

Being silly One of my favorites

You’ll see one of the finals in the right column of my site here soon. In the meantime, say, “Cheese!” and smile pretty!

John Colombo: http://www.johncolombo.com/